Unionism and the cult of the gun

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2006), Letters, Volume 14


—Paul Bew dismisses as ‘an amusing educational parlour game’ thestatement that Redmondite home rule could have delivered politicalfreedom ‘without the political and economic costs of the 1916 project’.He castigates nationalists for proposing ‘to celebrate 1916 in aninevitably rhetorical overblown style’ (HI 14.2, March/April 2006). Healso advises nationalists ‘finally to close the door on the cult of thegun’. I would have thought that they have done so, and indeed have gonefurther than John Redmond ever went, in signing up to the Good FridayAgreement. They have in addition acquiesced in the gains made through‘the cult of the gun’ by unionists.
The 1916 commemoration does indeed, as Paul Bew has hinted, raiseissues with which many of the organisers will have difficulty. ‘Thecult of the gun’, however, does not raise problems for nationalistsonly. It also raises spectres for all of the signatories of the GoodFriday Agreement. The rebellion of 1916, it should be remembered, didnot take place in a historical vacuum.
It is in this context that discussion on home rule becomes morethan ‘an amusing parlour game’. A major determinant of the presentsituation in Ireland and in Britain was the evolution of events duringthe home rule debate after 1912. That attempt to grant limited power toan all-Ireland parliament gave rise to threats byConservatives/Unionists of rebellion against the Westminsterparliament. The insecurity of unionists was highlighted in thestatement by the Belfast Newsletter at the time that ‘the unionists ofIreland would be much safer, in all respects, under the GermanReichstag than they would be under a nationalist parliament’. As aresult of this insecurity the passage by the House of Commons of theHome Rule Bill with significant majorities precipitated themilitarisation of Ulster unionists and then, in reaction, Irishnationalists. It can be argued that these developments resulted in the1916 Rising, the War of Independence, the Civil War and the eventualpartition of the island. In addition, the United Kingdom was forciblybroken up and Ireland was divided along sectarian lines. This, as hadbeen presciently forecast at the time by the Irish Times, ‘would resultin endless bitterness and retaliation’.
Why did this happen? The signing of the Ulster Covenant inSeptember 1912 by nearly half a million people to ‘use all meansnecessary’, including civil war, to oppose home rule was one of themost significant political events to happen in Ireland or indeed the UKin the twentieth century. It was part of a very effective campaign byunionists not only to intimidate parliament, government and the crownbut also to undermine the army.
It would not have succeeded, however, but for the powerful backingof Andrew Bonar Law, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party.At the famous Blenheim Palace demonstration in July 1912 he promised tosupport unionist opposition to home rule. More significantly, Bonar Lawadditionally declared on that occasion that ‘there are things strongerthan parliamentary majorities’, that unionists ‘would be justified inresisting by all means in their power, including force’, and that hecould ‘imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go in whichI will not be ready to support them’. It is hard to interpret thisfamous statement, and especially the assertion that ‘there are thingsstronger than parliamentary majorities’, as anything but a treasonouschallenge to the authority of parliament by the leader of theopposition of that parliament. That this attitude was supported by manyinfluential Conservatives was emphasised by Lord Willoughby de Broke,who said ‘if the government insists on civil war then they can have it.There are greater calamities than civil war’. Tory front bench supportfor, and Bonar Law’s complicity in, unionist arms-smuggling has alsobeen recorded by English historians.
At the same time as this was happening nationalists were supportingthe constitutional path. This included Patrick Pearse, who at this timewas speaking from home rule platforms. There was little nationalistsupport for physical force in 1912. ‘The cult of the gun’ seemed to bemonopolised by Conservatives/Unionists then, and the ghosts awakened bycommemorations will include unwelcome ghosts for Conservatives andUnionists of that other significant year in Irish and UK history. Tosay that the 1916 Rising would not have taken place but for the backingof Bonar Law for the Covenant of 1912 seems to me to be a reasonableargument and not, as Paul Bew says, ‘an amusing educational parlourgame’. As the Freeman’s Journal presciently put it at the time, ‘thehome rule movement, broken by the Covenant of Ulster’, became ‘thecharter for the revolutionary’. While 1916 commemorations will raisedifficult issues for nationalists on the ‘cult of the gun’ unionistswill just have to look the other way.

—Yours etc.,
Dublin 13


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