‘Armed blackmail’?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Home Rule Crisis, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2005), Letters, Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 13


—I noted with interest your use of the term ‘armed blackmail’ to describe the Ulster Volunteer Force campaign against home rule (editorial, HI 13.5, Sept./Oct. 2005). Your comments were in the context of trying to establish the origins of the Irish troubles that have led to IRA decommissioning.
In the course of your analysis, you referred to nationalist armed movements—from the United Irishmen to the Irish Volunteers (Óglaigh na hÉireann)—as possible candidates for having initiated the conflict. Interestingly, you chose not to attach any value judgement—whether ‘armed blackmail’ or any other phrase—to characterise those uprisings, even though a case could be made that none had a mandate from the Irish people. (Even in December 1918 Sinn Féin secured fewer than half the votes on the island. Many of those who did support the republicans had not realised that the following month their votes would be used to justify a campaign that was to maim and kill hundreds of Irish policemen and civilians.)
You suggest that the Ulster rebellion was a declaration of war on British democracy, yet in one respect it was the government’s handling of the Home Rule Bill that undermined the authority of parliament. Part of the anger in the north of Ireland stemmed from the fact that Asquith announced plans for Irish home rule after the December 1910 election, not during the campaign. It emerged from a post-election deal with the Irish Parliamentary Party to prop up a minority Liberal government—what Carson called a ‘most nefarious conspiracy’. Even the king, at the height of the crisis, appealed unsuccessfully to Asquith to call fresh elections on the home rule question. Ulster loyalists would probably have rebelled against home rule in any circumstances, but it was hardly British democracy’s finest hour.
As for the rebellion challenging Irish democracy, it is absolutely correct to say that self-rule in some form for the whole island was the settled will of the majority of the people at the beginning of the twentieth century. But a century on, the right of the north to be a separate polity, and of the people there alone to determine their future, is widely accepted at home and abroad.
Just as the independent Irish state ratified in retrospect the 1916 rebels’ taking matters into their own hands, so the actions of the loyalists in 1912 can be said to have led indirectly to the establishment of Northern Ireland, the legitimacy of which is now recognised by Irish democracy in the law and constitution of the modern Republic.
It is interesting that you directed the phrase ‘armed blackmail’ at loyalists of a century ago in an editorial inspired by recent IRA decommissioning. Because ‘armed blackmail’ is precisely what many people in Ireland (north and south) believe was the strategy of the Provisionals between their ceasefire and the beginning of decommissioning: namely that the maintenance of stockpiles of weapons, even if rarely used (and with the memory of Canary Wharf fresh in British minds), would provide leverage over a Blair government, far in excess of Sinn Féin’s electoral strength. Some believe that only the events of 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’ ended that policy, as evidenced by the fact that the first token act of IRA decommissioning took place the following month.
Hobbes observed that in certain circumstances ‘the nature of war consisteth not in actuall [sic] fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary’. Or, put another way, armed blackmail. Whoever started these Irish troubles, there does appear to have been a certain symmetry to the strategies of loyalists and republicans, albeit a hundred years apart.

—Yours etc.,

Editor’s reply
My editorial pondered the question of the origins of the IRA rather than of the Irish troubles (it would take more than a 300-word editorial to address that!). Leaving aside the issue of various splits—Provisionals, Officials, INLA, Continuity, Real or otherwise—there is an organisational line of succession that goes back to the Irish Volunteers (Óglaigh na hÉireann), founded in November 1913, explicitly in response to the establishment in January of the same year of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The issue at stake was not a republic or partition but home rule for Ireland as a whole—in Mr Draper’s words, ‘the settled will of the majority of the people’ since the advent of mass electoral politics in the 1880s. It was in the context of a constructive engagement between Ireland and the British state on a wide range of issues (land acts, local government reform, etc.) and under the aegis of both Conservative and Liberal governments. After the passing of the 1912 Home Rule Bill, however, the Conservative opposition, in a rearguard action in the face of the further democratisation of the British state (remember, the House of Lords’ veto was only removed in 1911), connived in the threat of armed rebellion by the Ulster Volunteers. Hence my reference to an attack on British democracy. In the scale of ‘nefarious conspiracies’ this surely ranks higher than any manoeuvres Asquith engaged in to prop up a minority Liberal government. Besides, home rule for Ireland had been Liberal policy since Gladstone’s ‘conversion’ in 1886.
Mr Draper raises the old canard that Sinn Féin secured less than half the votes in the 1918 general election. Apart from the fact that the 48 per cent of the vote they secured would deliver a decisive majority of seats in most democratic electoral systems, he neglects to mention that that was the vote in contested seats. Most Sinn Féiners were returned unopposed. Thus their actual level of support was considerably higher, although how high we’ll never know. Was this a mandate for revolution? That too is unclear. But what is clear is that once the War of Independence got under way it had popular support. Revolutions are rarely, if ever, mandated in advance: their legitimisation comes after the event, a point alluded to by Mr Draper. His concluding point that ‘there does appear to have been a certain symmetry to the strategies of loyalists and republicans, albeit a hundred years apart’, is well made. Would that there was such symmetry today: while the IRA has decommissioned, loyalist paramilitaries have not.
Tommy Graham


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