Wednesday 23 January 2019

Our President should look again at our bloody past

Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Cartoonist: Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Last February 26 I hoped here that President Higgins would seek a second term as he was best fitted to give us a pluralist position on the coming centenaries of the War of Independence and Civil War.

But having read his speech at the John Redmond Centenary in Wexford, I am having second thoughts - as well as second thoughts about my second thoughts.

Let me explain. The current bounce in the popularity of Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Fein is caused by many factors. But two in particular are making the party more palatable to Middle Ireland.

First, the notion that Sinn Fein could be a partner for one of the two major parties serves to retrospectively confer respectability.

Last week I gave chapter and verse on how Fine Gael and Sinn Fein seemed to be making eyes at each other since last December.

Sources tell me that the chronicle fed into the Taoiseach forcibly telling Cabinet ministers like Jim Daly to cop themselves on.

Second, if the President of Ireland says force was finally the only path to Irish freedom in 1919-21, it feeds into Sinn Fein's narrative on Northern Ireland.

Accordingly, I was baffled by the fulsome response to the President's speech on John Redmond at the Wexford centenary.

The uncritical response may have been a reaction of relief following the President's failure to attend an earlier symposium in unclear circumstances.

At first sight the speech is a paean of praise to great constitutional leaders like Daniel O'Connell.

But in the last few paragraphs, the President flatly tells us he believes Irish freedom could not have been won without force.

Before I challenge that, let me first finger a flaw in the President's conclusions about the relative merits of the Irish Parliamentary Party and Sinn Fein.

In particular, I reject his portrayal of a dated Irish Parliamentary Party being replaced by radical or 'modernist' forces of Sinn Fein and the IRB.

Here the President is too fast in accepting the revolutionaries' radical credentials which are largely a republican myth.

He ignores the deeply conservative aspects of Arthur Griffith, James Connolly and Pearse.

Arthur Griffith, an anti-Semite, opposed Larkin's unions. James Connolly's lesser-known writings reveal him as a bloodthirsty bigot.

Connolly has long been a great hero of President Higgins. Me, too, until I read the late Sean O'Callaghan's recent study of him.

Here's Connolly's chilling declaration of war on an entire people from an essay he wrote in 1916.

"We are sick of the canting talk of those who tell us that we must not blame the British people for the crimes of their rulers against Ireland. We do blame them."

This racism is the root of Provo justification for bombing British pubs and shopping centres.

If the President really wished to be radical, he would explore the ethics of this fundamentally racist mentality which still runs deep in IRA circles.

If we have to have a 1916 hero let it be Patrick Pearse. Unlike Connolly, Pearse never wrote about killing as distinct from self-sacrifice.

Moving on. The President suggests Redmond's party got lazy and settled for Home Rule within the empire - as if this was a second best path.

But the path of force we finally took led to the War of Independence, a Civil War with sectarian subtexts, and a long legacy of bitterness.

Arguing against a constitutional solution, President Higgins says we were in the same boat as African and Asian countries who took up arms against colonial powers.

British colonialism in Ireland was nothing like that of Africa. By 1900 the British were basically liberal imperialists in Ireland.

While Leopold of Belgium set himself up as a Pharaoh, our vapid viceroys just got drunk at horse shows.

The President's African analogy actually works against the argument for force as most of the big African states separated easily after World War II.

Let me now get to close quarters with my basic quarrel with the President's speech - the notion that force was necessary to achieve Irish freedom.

The older I get, the more I read and reflect, the more convinced I am that Home Rule would have been better.

Given the weakening of the British Empire, and a powerful mass civil rights campaign, we could have secured some form of Home Rule by the 1930s.

Naturally Northern unionists would have gone their own way - but separation would not have been a rush job under pressure as in 1926.

With a powerful nationalist party in the House of Commons, we could have prevented the gerrymandering of Northern nationalists.

In the course of a constitutional struggle along the lines of Daniel O'Connell's great mass movement, we would have won world sympathy.

Under any form of Home Rule, we would have gradually gained strength and sinew like Canada and Australia have done - and without bloodshed.

Retaining some form of contact with the United Kingdom - and here De Valera's much-mocked but politically pragmatic Document No 2 might have been invaluable - would have given us the best of both British and Irish worlds.

Constant contact with an increasingly liberal Westminster parliament would have helped Irish liberals to reject repressive forces in Irish society.

Westminster would have been less indulgent of the bishops than Bunreacht na hEireann and allowed Irish dissenters like Hubert Butler more air to breathe.

In time we can be sure that British and Irish liberalism would have combined to reform Irish clerical abuses.

An analogy here is how deeply Catholic Bayern is formally bound by a liberal federal German constitution.

Being tethered for longer to a more instinctively liberal polity like the UK would almost certainly have been healthier for our society in the long run.

Waiting a decade or so would have spared us recurring IRA death cults and a repressive clericalism.

This, of course, is pure speculation. But it's as valid as President Higgins's notion that the only way forward was through force.

The portrait he paints of Redmond is one of a decent misfit, out of sync with the deepest desires of his people.

But that is reading things retrospectively. Back in 1919, a peaceful outcome was still very much to play for.

The President is only human. His father was in the IRA and the temptation to validate his national service is strong in his son.

But I, too, had relatives in the IRA. Somehow I confronted their grim ghosts until I got a glimpse of an alternative history.

Let me sincerely hope President Higgins revisits his belief that the way we went was the only way.

That hope rests on my conviction that as a public intellectual, President Higgins will look again at the alternatives to violence available to the first Dail in 1919 - alternatives aborted by the atrocity at Soloheadbeg.

But I still support a second term - and not just because Fergus Finlay is standing by.

Finally, let me strongly recommend Dermot Meleady's classic biography: John Redmond: The National Leader.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss