Fatal path: British government and Irish revolution 1910–22

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 6 (November/December 2013), Reviews, Volume 21

Ronan Fanning
(Faber and Faber, £16.99)
ISBN 9780571297399

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‘There is a path of fatality which pursues the relations between the two countries and makes them eternally at cross purposes’
(David Lloyd George, House of Commons, 22 December 1919).

Author Ronan Fanning says:

‘Fatal path is simply a case study in the high politics of how physical force can prevail over democracy. It explains rather than condemns the behaviour of ministers in the governments led by Herbert Henry Asquith and Lloyd George as they sought a solution to Irish unionist and nationalist demands for self determination—behaviour for the most part neither better nor worse than that of politicians in other parliamentary democracies.’

This is an excellent and meticulously researched book for both historians and students of politics. It is firstly an important reference for all those interested in contemporary Irish history and how the British political system behaved and used Ireland from 1912 to 1922 to avert a constitutional crisis within the mother of parliaments. It also presents an interesting case-study in ‘barefaced’ politics. The political machinations of the period at Westminster have been left for the reader to interpret and challenge.

Fatal path begins with Gladstone’s legacy from the late nineteenth century and Irish nationalists’ support of the Boer struggle in South Africa, to the annoyance of the Liberal Party at Westminster. Yet within a dozen years that same party was happy to bring the Irish Parliamentary Party on board for support. The most significant event to trigger the constitutional crisis at Westminster was Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909. It is a pity that Fanning did not give some details of that budget—the introduction of a wealth tax and death duties on the rich to rebuild the naval fleet and the introduction of the old age pension. The House of Lords, to protect their individual wealth, voted down this ‘social democratic’ budget, an action that was contrary to parliamentary convention.

Fanning keeps to the political shenanigans at Westminster. To steady the political ship, Prime Minister Asquith got the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party. This was conditional on the introduction of the third Home Rule bill for Ireland and the passing of the Parliament Act to remove the House of Lords veto. At the same time, Fatal path shows that the Ulster Unionists got Asquith to acquiesce to their special status. With the third Home Rule bill on the statute book, the IPP appeared to be pushed into oblivion as Sir Edward Carson continued to fight for Protestant Ulster.

In the ten-year period from 1912 to 1922, much happened within the relationship between nationalist Ireland and Britain, when Irish nationalist aspirations had few friends at Westminster. Augustine Birrell, chief secretary to Ireland, was one of the few British politicians to show some understanding of nationalist Ireland. From late 1916 a new national government with Lloyd George as prime minister was formed as Unionist demands were enhanced, with Sir Edward Carson now a minister in the war cabinet.

Fanning has presented a detailed historical nugget around the so-called ‘Curragh Mutiny’ of 1914. This was an organised ‘cop-out’ by the authorities, who gave the military at the Curragh the option to ‘opt out’ of official orders to take on separatist Ulster. In addition, the action without evidence by Dublin Castle around the so-called ‘German Plot’ in 1918 was another falsehood that was used to arrest Sinn Féin leaders in Ireland over conscription. As the War of Independence was peaking, initial contacts towards a settlement between London and Dublin via Art O’Brien and the international media are mentioned.

David Lloyd George was never a friend of Ireland, a fact on which Fanning comments, showing the Welsh wizard’s anti-Catholic prejudice and his support for Protestant Ulster. Nevertheless, reading Fatal path, one cannot but admire Lloyd George as a politician of great skill. He survived as British prime minister in a national government from 1916 and as leader of a minority Liberal party with majority Tory and Unionist support from 1918. Fanning demonstrates that it was Lloyd George who steered the Irish question to settlement. This is quite clear throughout Fatal path, as it was the one issue that no other political leader wished to address. As Fanning rightly says, ‘the “Ulster monkey” had to be delivered by the creation of two parliaments in Ireland’.

Chapter 11 on the Treaty negotiations is compelling and does much to explain—and, one hopes, eliminate—some of the historical misunderstandings from an Irish perspective. In his conclusion, Fanning states that ‘the treaty settlement of December 1921 conferred a much greater level of independence on what became the Irish Free State than was envisaged under the terms of the 1920 act’. The watered-down oath of allegiance and, more importantly, full fiscal control were the important additions. The proposed Boundary Commission and its failure are well explained.
Many would argue against Fanning’s statement that Arthur Griffith, the leader of the plenipotentiaries at the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations, showed weakness. Perhaps it was Griffith’s leadership, when full fiscal control was granted, which recognised the chance to rid Ireland of the ‘British monkey’. All sides, including America and the Dominions, wanted a settlement. Fatal path shows the beginnings of much political and social change and is highly recommended.

Dermot McMonagle is author of 29 Main Street: Living with Partition (2013).

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