JOHN REDMOND: THE NATIONAL LEADER

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2014), Reviews, Volume 22

DERMOT MELEADY
Merrion
£26.50

ISBN 9781908928313

REVIEWED BY
PATRICK MAUME

Redmond

Jessica Cunningham’s 2012 Hugh Lane Gallery lecture on the visual culture of Home Rule displayed three contemporary images of John Redmond. The second and most prominent, dating from his post-1900 leadership of the Irish Party, is familiar in standard narratives of twentieth-century Irish history: a bulky, conservative parliamentarian—for some a complacent dupe, for others a noble constitutionalist martyred between Irish extremists and British politicians. This is the Redmond of the only full biography—Denis Gwynn’s John Redmond (1932), focusing on the last years of Redmond’s career and so discreet that it does not mention that Redmond’s second wife was a Protestant.

In 2008, after several years’ intensive research, Dermot Meleady filled a gap with Redmond: the Parnellite, which rediscovered the first Redmond image—the dashing young agitator, annoying conservative relatives by joining the Home Rule movement before it was respectable and getting jailed for land agitation; the suddenly bereaved widower with three young children; the backbencher catapulted to prominence (and eventual leadership of the Parnellite minority) by eloquent defence of the embattled Chief, hailed as the voice of the ‘new generation’ (ten years younger than Parnell) as he struggled in the political and financial morass of nationalist politics in the 1890s. It ends with the reunion of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) in 1900 under Redmond as compromise leader.
Now Meleady tackles the older Redmond and provides a steady flow of insights into an apparently more familiar story. (For example, after 1916 Sinn Féiners claimed that the Redmondite Freeman’s Journal was kept afloat by a secret government subsidy. Meleady shows that there was a secret subsidy but that it came from the wealthy Ulster Liberal businessman Lord Pirrie.)

While there are glimpses of a happy but decidedly private personal life, this is above all a study in leadership. At the core of the case against Home Rule lay the view (shared not only by intransigent unionists but also by moderates such as Horace Plunkett and conservative nationalists such as William Martin Murphy) that the IPP was an irresponsible protest party in-capable of the responsibilities of governance. This perception was reinforced by the self-inflicted disasters of the Parnell split and further squabbles after the defeat of Gladstonian Home Rule. Meleady argues that Redmond’s image as parliamentarian stems not only from personal conservatism but from his prioritising the need to rebuild an inherently fragile party and use it as an instrument of power to secure reforms benefiting Ireland and to convince British opinion that Ireland was capable of self-government. This involved more than making speeches and addressing demonstrations; it required constant scrutiny of legislation, constant attendance in parliament (Meleady emphasises Redmond’s constant hard work and the genuine, if limited, reforms secured) and a delicate balancing act between competing party factions, limiting (but not preventing) the appearance of new nationalist splinter groups. Deeper still (Meleady shows convin-cingly) lay a desire to conciliate the (predominantly Protestant) unionist minority whose cooperation would be necessary to make Home Rule function, though Redmond’s ability to move in this direction was weakened by his prioritisation of nationalist unity and by failure to realise the full extent to which Ulster unionism was emerging as a separate populist phenomenon from more traditional, more élitist and increasingly precarious Southern unionism. Meleady sees Redmond’s move towards élite-led compromise with moderate unionists around the 1903 Wyndham Land Act (aborted by Redmond’s decision to defer to the sceptical John Dillon rather than split the party by supporting the erratic William O’Brien) as representing Redmond’s true instincts, which re-emerge in the abortive negotiations for Home Rule with partition brokered by Lloyd George after the 1916 Rising, and in Redmond’s last desperate attempt to reach a settlement with moderate unionists through the 1917–18 Irish Convention. (Meleady provocatively compares this strategy to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, also hammered out among political élites before being presented to the wider public for ratification, and suggests that the 1998 Agreement would have failed if it had faced the sort of media opposition which Murphy’s Irish Independent directed against Redmond.)

Meleady admires Redmond but is not blind to his flaws, notably his wishful thinking (especially in financial matters), his failure to promote younger and more vigorous activists into the IPP, and his failure to convey his thought processes to a wider audience or to draw on his full potential authority at crucial moments. He also notes the limits to Redmond’s social reformism (particularly with reference to women’s suffrage and the 1913 Dublin Lockout) and how his emphasis on personal honour could be harshly judgemental. (When his nephew Louis left the Benedictine Order after suffering a nervous breakdown, Redmond ostracised him for having broken a solemn commitment, even though Louis’s superiors agreed that he was unsuited for monastic life and assisted his laicisation.)

In relation to the third Home Rule bill, Meleady dissents both from the view (expressed by separatist contemporaries and revived in terms of the ‘realist’ interpretation of politics by Ronan Fanning) of a naive Redmond weakly trusting in British Liberal politicians who despised Irish nationalists and from the more sympathetic view (classically expressed by Gwynn) of a determined and well-intentioned patriot let down by British politicians. Arguing that Ulster unionist oppo-sition meant that Home Rule could not have been secured without partition, Meleady holds that it was perfectly rational for Asquith and Redmond to postpone concessions to the last pos-sible moment. (One of his major discoveries is an undelivered Redmond speech, shelved on the outbreak of war, offering to accept partition without a time-limit in return for boundary concessions.) This may perhaps understate the structural imbalance in the relationship between the British government and Irish nationalists; given the imbalance of power and the fact that if the interests of the two collided British ministers would always enforce their own priorities, any attempt by some nationalists to build mutual trust would always be seen by more radical nationalists as naivety or betrayal.

A comparison between Redmond and Arthur Griffith is instructive, since Griffith claimed to uphold the Parnellism advocated by the young Redmond in the 1890s; thus Griffith cited Redmond’s Parnellite criticisms of the anti-Parnellites’ subordination to the Liberals against the older Redmond in 1912–14, ridiculing his trust in the Liberals and his implicit acceptance of partition, but in the Treaty negotiations Griffith in turn acquiesced in partition and declared himself bound in honour to accept the Treaty when the British held him to the full implications of his tacit concessions earlier in the negotiations. Thus he found himself in the same dilemma as Redmond and is criticised by Fanning as equally naive.

Meleady similarly argues that Redmond’s unhesitating support for the British war effort in 1914 derived from rational political calculation (including moral commitment to Belgium, where his niece was a nun) rather than thoughtless enthusiasm or the flattery of Margot Asquith. The long-standing ambiguity (much cited by unionists) about whether Irish nationalism was hostile to Britain per se or simply to the denial of (limited) Irish self-government had to be resolved under the circumstances, and any attempt to bargain would have weakened the nationalist position in post-war dealings with Britain and the unionists over the limits of partition. (The role of France—seen as Ireland’s traditional ally and more liberal than the Kaiserreich—may also be relevant; in the 1890s some Parnellites such as Willie Redmond proclaimed that Irish nationalists would side with France in an Anglo-French war, and in 1915 the IPP tried to strengthen its position by enlisting French support and was promptly denounced by pro-German separatists as an associate of French freemasons.)

Redmond’s central problem was that—like most others—he expected the war to be short. Redmond and a Liberal-run Dublin Castle administration kept the lid on the Irish situation until the Easter Rising (itself partly motivated by expectation that the war would be decided in summer 1916). Once the post-Rising Lloyd George negotiations forced an immediate confrontation of the partition issue and revealed that despite humiliating nationalist concessions the government acquiesced when a key group of Conservative ministers insisted that Home Rule incorporate restrictions unacceptable to nationalists, Redmond’s story is a rapid spiral towards defeat, compounded by the deaths of his daughter in America and his brother on the Western Front and by his own declining health.

The third image of Redmond in Jessica Cunningham’s lecture derives from a photograph (reproduced by Meleady as plate 14[b]) taken shortly before his death. It shows a man broken by grief; after his death it was reproduced by his remaining followers as the image of a martyr rejected by an ungrateful people. While Meleady concludes with some counterfactual speculations, discussing how Ireland and Redmond might have fared under various different circumstances, he emphasises that Redmond ended in utter defeat and that the new Ireland that followed the war forgot even his achievements.

In any study on this scale there will be minor errors. The trade unionist MP John Burns was not ‘Scottish’ (p. 26) but a Londoner. The statement that Tom Kettle and Richard Hazleton were the only members of the Young Ireland Branch of the United Irish League to become MPs (p. 99) overlooks the (admittedly undistinguished) E.J. Kelly (MP for East Donegal, 1910– 22). These slips should not obscure Meleady’s remarkable command of archival sources or the careful development of his analysis.

Any final assessment of Redmond must take account of those who lost out through his actions and inactions. Whether a Redmondite Ireland—perhaps less provincial, certainly less sovereign and more resentful thereat—would have been better than the Irelands created by his opponents, or how far 21st-century Ireland can be said to have moved back to acknowledging factors grasped by Redmond but overlooked in the decades after partition, can be debated. Meleady’s account highlights Redmond’s genuine concern and achievements and the constraints that shaped his choices. The central justification of Irish nationalism was that it would allow the Irish people to take responsibility for their own decisions and to accept the consequences; whatever judgement is made on Redmond’s choices, in that sense he was a true Irish nationalist.

Patrick Maume is an editorial assistant with the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.

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