British High Politics and Nationalist Ireland, Margaret O’Callaghan and Ideology and the Irish Question, Paul Bew (3:1)

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Home Rule Crisis, Issue 1 (Spring 1995), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, The Act of Union, Volume 3

British High Politics and Nationalist Ireland: criminality, land and the law under Foster and Balfour
Margaret O’Callaghan
(Cork University Press, £30hb, £15.95pb)

Ideology and the Irish Question: Ulster Unionism and Irish Nationalism 1912-1916
Paul Bew (Clarendon Press, £20)

(3:1) Reviewed by Martin Mansergh

In Ireland, history is ideology. Over the last few decades, historians of different tendencies have sought to achieve a deeper understanding of the choices that have been made by both traditions in Ireland and the background to them, and in some cases to justify them. During the many years of a murderous conflict, which is bound to be seen as one of the nadirs of our history, when the sins both of commission and omission both by governments and by the different traditions caught up with us, history was employed to moderate both the rhetoric and the ambitions more especially of nationalist Ireland. Yet the achievement of peace has required and will go on requiring on the part of both governments an empathy with, and understanding of, the historically based ideals and fears of both republicanism and loyalism, as well as the wider unionist and nationalist traditions of which they are both part.
Margaret O’Callaghan and Paul Bew have written short but illuminating studies of two of the formative periods in modern Irish history, the land war and its aftermath, and the period of the home rule crisis.
There have been many studies of the Land War, which have added a lot of nuance to the simple picture of landlord versus tenant. But while integrating modern insights into her study of the attempts of Foster and Balfour to combine reform and coercion, Margaret       O’ Callaghan also reminds us of the basic social and political realities that cannot be wished away. 1879-80 was a period of severe hardship. Many tenants and their families particularly in the West lived in mud cabins. Many of those who formed or joined the Land League still had vivid memories of the Great Famine. Many landlords were under financial pressure. More prosperous tenant farmers feared for the security of their investment. The administration was in the invidious position of having to enforce laws that were popularly resisted in circumstances seen to be publicly repugnant. It was ideologically embarrassing for a Liberal government to admit that Ireland could not be ruled by ordinary methods of law and order. Liberal reforms, which strengthened tenant rights, continued some years later by local government reform, made landlordism, shorn of most of its political influence, no longer worth the candle, and paved the way for acceptance of the Wyndham land purchase scheme of 1903.
Interestingly, Margaret O’Callaghan dates the defeat of constitutional nationalism back to the late 1880s and the Chief Secretaryship of Balfour. The Land League had provided the springboard for the strength and unity of the Parliamentary Party, which in 1886 obtained the immense breakthrough of a Liberal commitment in principle to home rule. But the Conservative Party under Lord Salisbury motivated by ‘selfish, strategic and economic interests’ was determined to defeat constitutional nationalism. He wrote: ‘Ireland must be kept, like India, at all hazards; by persuasion if possible, if not by force’ (1883). The land agitation of the early 1880s was turned against Parnell and his party; all were tarred with the brush of a criminal conspiracy. Yet at the end of his life Balfour recognised the Irish Free State as ‘the Ireland that we made’. The achievement of the generation that came to the fore in the 1880s was to make the politics of the next field merge with the politics of independent Ireland.
Margaret O’Callaghan’s book is based on her Cambridge doctoral dissertation. It relates high politics through police reports to the situation on the ground. Some of her argument is complex and not altogether easy to follow, and would have benefited from a clear recapitulation at some point. Nevertheless, it makes an important contribution to the literature and to an understanding of the period.
Paul Bew’s study of Ulster Unionism and Irish Nationalism at the time of the home rule crisis would appear in part to be a response to an implicit challenge in a contribution to Fortnight in 1991, where I wrote: ‘Even for the most revisionist historian, resistance to home rule is difficult to transform into a stand for liberal democratic ideals and enlightened values’. Indeed, he points out that the most important historians of modern Ireland have made no such effort to rehabilitate the anti-home rule cause. Paul Bew makes a limited, though not uncritical, attempt to rehabilitate both the Ulster Unionists and their Redmondite opponents as against the 1916 leaders and Sinn Féin.
He notes how unionism developed from equal citizenship within the United Kingdom to Ulster Protestant self-determination, and from opposition to a divided United Kingdom to opposition to home rule in a divided Ireland. There was also ambivalence on the proper attitude to be adopted to the potential Catholic minority. In 1913-4 James Craig made both of these statements: ‘In dealing with the Roman Catholic Church, two things must be remembered—first, there can be no such thing as equality, for if you are not top dog she will be.’ But he also promised the Northern nationalist minority ‘equality of treatment’ under the provisional government, a concept which the British government, mindful of unionist sensitivities, still have strong reservations about today.
Paul Bew lists some of the unionist objections to home rule: fear of religious discrimination, the forced imposition of the Irish language, and the economic consequences for Northern industry integrated into the wider British economy. He does not comment explicitly, however, on the gross disproportion between the Castledown incident, where there was a sectarian riot, and the expulsion of 2,000 Catholic shipyard workers.
Arguments, which are still echoed today, are quoted, for example, Harry Lawson MP in 1912:

How are you in these days, these democratic days, in this democratic age, in this democratic country, to force a million men into a system which they refuse to join…How are you going to expel the Irish minority from citizenship of the UK?

Bew, writing in a post-Marxist age, eschews any class analysis of unionism at that time, in contrast to his treatment of the Redmondite party. He does not consider the proposition put forward by A.T.Q. Stewart in his Ulster Crisis that the 1912-14 resistance was a last ditch, but very successful, effort by the Protestant Ascendancy in the North to rescue what it could in alliance with the capitalists of Belfast and exploiting the all-class structures of the Orange lodges. As J.W. Good wrote in Ulster and Ireland (1919) of Carson, ‘to judge by the composition of his revolutionary committees, Ulster, to his mind, was to be saved by her peers, parsons and plutocrats’. Irish democracy meant equality sooner or later and to a large extent the dismantling of privilege. Some of the terms of the Covenant, which spoke of ‘defeating the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland’, were profoundly anti-democratic. Bew brings out how the Unionist leadership at the time were playing for very high stakes, with their defiant embrace of illegality, but the difficult prospect of fighting against crown forces was to be avoided, if possible.
Paul Bew’s study of Redmond is very interesting, and certainly reminds nationalist readers why Redmondism was ultimately so comprehensively rejected. Redmond’s move from earlier conciliation of unionists to an emphasis on the role of the British government is rational enough, given the evolution of unionism from its own more conciliatory phase at the turn of the century to a more hardline position. But Redmond’s embrace of British imperialism coming closer to 1914, to encourage the British government to implement home rule, and his unequivocal acceptance of the continuing supremacy of the British parliament was offensive to more advanced nationalists. The argument has been made that Redmond’s support for the British war effort was necessary to preserve any hope of unity, and it did lead to some softening of attitudes. But Bew admits realistically that even without the 1916 Rising the best that could be hoped for after the war was better North-South relations, not unity, even in the context of home rule.
There is an interesting point that economic relations with Britain had begun to reverse from financial exploitation throughout the nineteenth century to the beginnings of the modern subvention. The speculative argument is considered by Bew that both home rule and independence were set to become less attractive. The 1916 leaders certainly had a burning sense of mission, as they feared the extinction of national sentiment.
Bew also considers the legacy of Redmondism. His idea of a nominated senate that would contain the pick of the Irish peerage and other unionists like Sir Horace Plunkett was effectively implemented in the first Free State Senate. Southern unionists were given an honorific political status, with minority representation reduced to the Trinity seats under the 1937 Constitution.
He notes that Redmond shared with de Valera and indeed most leading nationalists of the time a preference for the virtues of rural society over an industrial one. He also grappled with the dilemma of maintaining unity but avoiding coercion. In a speech in September 1914 he said:

There are two things I care most about in the world of politics. The first is that this system of autonomy which is to be extended to Ireland shall be extended to the whole country and not a single sod of Irish soil and not a single citizen of the Irish nation shall be excluded from its operation…the second thing that I most earnestly desire is that no coercion shall be applied to any county in Ireland to force them against their will to come into an Irish government. At the moment, as everybody knows, these two things unfortunately are incompatible.

The leaders of the independence struggle had to grapple with the same difficulty in 1921, striving to maintain the principle of the ‘essential unity’ of Ireland, while on the whole accepting that there could be no coercion. Albert Reynolds’ balancing in the Joint Declaration of self-determination and consent and rejection of coercion is more a development of what was reluctantly accepted as the factual situation in 1921, rather than a direct throwback to John Redmond, as Bew claims. A further edition, however, may be in a better position to analyse the influence of Redmondism on the new Taoiseach, John Bruton, who publicly acknowledges that he comes from that strand, which was eventually subsumed into the formation of Fine Gael.
Bew might have devoted a chapter to an exposition of the William O’Brien analysis, to which there are interesting references, as the contemporary constitutional alternative to the Redmondite one. Like Margaret O’Callaghan’s book, Paul Bew’s study is a useful and stimulating addition to our historical literature. It does not come to any clear-cut conclusions about the validity of either the Unionist or Redmondite stance at that time. The rehabilitation can in any case only go so far. Both they and their various successors North and South have clearly left a serious problem, which remains to be resolved by negotiations, and not by force or the threat of it, which has been finally discredited as a means either of protecting the Union or promoting Irish unity.

Martin Mansergh


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568