Ronan Fanning: Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922 (London: Faber and Faber, 2013)
Professor Fanning describes how the high hopes that followed the Irish Parliamentary Party’s becoming kingmakers in the 1910 elections were dashed by violence in the years that followed. This “Violence, or more specifically, the British government’s response to violence, determined the course of the fatal path” that left Ireland and Britain “at cross purposes” (pp. 1, xi), and led to tragedy rather than the peaceful separation that had been so optimistically expected. That path, however, is more complex and convoluted than the one marked on Professor Fanning’s map. His title metaphor is faulty and this weakens his thesis.
In his Introduction Professor Fanning claims that the release of archival material in 1967 may have coloured perception of the latest Troubles that were then about to erupt, and affected historical interpretation of the earlier Troubles: “Political imperatives prevailed, as they invariably do, over historical truth in the revisionist debate that then ensued” (p 3). As a professional historian he is not, of course, hostile to revisionism per se but his point of engagement is that
One of the more unfortunate by-products of the revisionist debate about twentieth-century Irish history is that it legitimises the self-delusions of the intellectual heirs to the constitutional nationalists who had been so resoundingly defeated by the republican revolutionaries
(p 4). Professor Fanning’s concern is to prove that “in high politics ... physical force can prevail over democracy” (p 5), that Republican violence was necessary to separate Ireland from Britain and that it was therefore justified. He fails to prove his case fully but in many regards he does a fine job.
Professor Fanning traces how the Irish Question had so damaged the Liberals that after Gladstone it was decided that cross-party consensus was the best approach. Liberal dependence on the IPP after 1910 meant Home Rule as quid pro quo, but there was never any enthusiasm for this and the notoriously tergiversate Prime Minister Asquith deferred engaging with the conundrum of reconciling Home Rule for Ireland with Unionist determination to resist “Rome Rule” by any means and methods, lawful or otherwise. It was the mere threat of physical force that prevailed “in high politics” and paralysed British democracy, when Unionist determination not to be ruled by Dublin combined with the threat of military mutiny to emasculate the Liberal-IPP coalition.
The Great War defused the danger of not just civil war in Ireland but revolution across the United Kingdom. More significantly, as far as Ireland was concerned, British cross-party co-operation in the wartime coalition sidelined the IPP, restored consensus on the Irish Question, and relegated this to a position of very secondary importance. The Government of Ireland Act, 1914, had however to be implemented after the war; the challenge was how to do this while optimising acceptance of its terms and peacefully transferring power to the Irish.
That this would end in tears was feared from the start. One of the conclusions Professor Fanning’s reader comes to is that Ireland was ill-served by her British friends. Tories may have looked on the Irish as racial degenerates, amiable clowns when not at British throats, but in looking out for their own constituency they benefited Ireland incidentally. “Killing Home Rule with kindness”, in tandem with Sir Horace Plunkett’s Co-op movement, had made Irish smallholders among the most prosperous in Europe in the early twentieth century. The Liberals who followed the Tory years, after they lost their majority, reluctantly agreed to implement a measure that simply could not have met the expectations of the Irish without provoking such reaction, in Ireland and Britain, that civil war, even revolution, might have followed.
Professor Fanning makes this clear; yet he seems conflicted in his analysis. He acknowledges “the nationalist delusion that the partition of Ireland was avoidable” (p 134), and that politics is perhaps less the art of the possible as the essential, given that many times he exposes the necessity of ceding special status to Ulster if disaster is to be avoided; yet he seems to regard the politicians who had to work out the details as the “tamer men” of MacDonagh’s dismissive description. Before 1914 there were fears that frustrating Nationalist expectations could be worse than coercing Ulster—as Asquith acknowledged, “An ungovernable Ireland is a more serious prospect than rioting in 4 counties” (p 81)—but while it’s hardly noble, given that politics is the art of the possible it’s hardly surprising that if one side had to be disappointed any government would seek to appease its larger constituency, which the Conservative-Unionist-Liberal Imperialist bloc unquestionably constituted.
This temptation toward appeasement was sharpened by the Easter Rising, which robbed Nationalists of such sympathy as they had. The eruption of enemy-sponsored violence in wartime, with that enemy in the ascendant, threatened Britain’s very survival, and reinforced support for the Unionists. Worse, the Proclamation’s acknowledgement of “gallant allies in Europe” cast Nationalists as the enemy.
Professor Fanning does not examine the implications, significance and subtleties of Hiberno-German violence, or the differences between it and the threat of Unionist violence. While it is indisputable that “the British government’s response to violence determined the course of the fatal path”, that path was bifurcated up to 1916. The National Volunteers followed from the UVF, but the other route to violence was a separate and much longer one taken by the IRB, who suborned the IVF rump to a course that was not that of the original Volunteers, established to defend Home Rule, not violently break away.
Professor Fanning’s Introduction implies that violent Republican resolution to the demand for independence was inevitable—and, by implication, justified—after armed Unionist defiance, but he fails to prove this because he doesn’t explore what, to stick with his metaphor, we may call “the IRB path”—the truly fatal one. He does demonstrate that the threat of Unionist violence reintroduced the gun into Irish affairs, but this is disputed by no one; it was IRB overt violence in 1916 that ensured the gun was fired; that instigated the Troubles and ensured that separation would not be peaceful. In 1916 the twin trails of the fatal path were conjoined and “rioting in 4 counties” as the lesser of two evils was no longer an option for the government to choose. The IRB saw to that, not the politicians.
A rejuvenated IRB had anticipated the UVF by a decade and its purpose was forceful overthrow of British rule. The Great War gave it opportunity and Unionist defiance appeared to give moral justification for its violence but such justification is spurious. Two wrongs never make a right and none of the three moral requirements for just war were in place in Ireland in 1916. Absent them and one still could justify IRB violence not on moral but pragmatic grounds had it achieved its purpose and had it done so more quickly and better than non-violent methods could have. It didn’t.
The treasonous response to the Third Home Rule Bill remains, of course, an ominous reflection on the substance of British parliamentary democracy and the establishment’s effective veto on this. But there is, related to this ugly development, another substantive difference between the UVF’s threat of violence and the IRB’s delivery of it that Professor Fanning seems to miss, for all that he cites an insightful analysis of the democratic situation:
Parliamentary democracy [ultimately] depends upon a minority accepting majority decisions, and this acceptance in turn depends upon the majority not taking decisions which the minority regards as genuinely intolerable.... Minorities accept majority decisions because they know that these decisions will not be insufferable and because they know that the majority of today will become the minority of tomorrow (pp 119-20).
In this light, the collective UK polity would seem justified in thinking that, in the peculiar electoral circumstances of the time, the Liberals were prostituting democratic responsibility to parliamentary advantage: if they felt they were in the right, why not bring this serious constitutional issue to the country, as they had in 1910? The answer is that they would have lost office had they done so and they and everyone else knew that, so the putative insurgents were not without a case, extra-parliamentary though they threatened to make it and whether one sympathises with them or not. Yet had Asquith gone to the country and lost, Nationalist frustration would also cause trouble, and present equally perplexing democratic challenges.
The Liberal party’s nonconformist conscience began to trouble it. Unionist fears of Rome Rule, as well as political and economic mismanagement that would ruin them, were widely shared across the United Kingdom, by Tories and Whigs alike, and those fears proved well founded. Given the sectarian divide in Ireland, British democrats rightly perceived that there could be no “swing of the electoral pendulum” to ensure democratic balance if Home Rule were extended to all of Ireland: enduring Nationalist hegemony must follow, with Unionists perpetually in the minority.
Since the seventeenth century British parliamentary policy, at home and abroad, had been founded on opposition to hegemony (except, notoriously, in Ireland—though Gladstone set out to remedy that). This opposition had extended to regicide in 1649 and revolution in 1688, and consistent support for the enemies of Continental absolutists. The extra-parliamentary activities of a century ago, across the UK, the willingness to entertain revolution, stem from the threat to bipartisan democracy which all-Ireland Home Rule arguably constituted.
The terrible truth is that there was no possible solution to the Irish Question. The problem was of such complexity that it could only ever be managed; all attempts to “solve” it by violence have always failed and made matters worse. Effective management is founded on good information but instead of checking this we Irish instead consulted our mythology. “Ireland was
a nation,” Collins insisted in London. “Every Irishman felt it in himself” (p. 286). To bring such an attitude to a treaty table betrays frightening political naiveté. With such subordination of cold hard fact to warm self-righteous feeling, is it any wonder he and the rest of the delegation were so comprehensively outwitted? Borrowing from Professor Fanning’s Introduction, historical untruths now had prevailed over political imperatives.
In fairness to the delegates, by then the damage was done; but the remarks illustrate how, to borrow from William Faulkner, when people have lost everything, often the last thing they let go of is the thing that has destroyed them. “Raised on song and story”, seduced by the emotive strains of Thomas Davis, the Republicans set out to become “a nation once again”—and foundered on the crushing reef that the island never was, and after the seventeenth century never could be, a unitary nation. Long before Nine-Eleven exposed multiculturalism as the dangerous nonsense that commonsensical people always knew it to be, Ireland was long-suffering evidence that integration is the only possible peaceful way to accommodate outsiders in any country, and by 1910, far less 1921, such integration on a national scale was long impossible.
In the seventeenth century, lessons learned from earlier Angevin and English failures ensured that the Jacobite, Cromwellian and Williamite plantations were on such scale that they must massively displace the native Irish. Of at least equal importance, the new settlers were culturally differentiated by religion; this, for the first time, created an enduring barrier that twentieth-century political massaging of electoral numbers would fail to surmount.
Three centuries on, religious differentiation remained a critical factor. Yet violence was not inevitable. The two sides’ leaders were adamant but their language was “amicable” (p 127). Though there is no doubt the Unionists would have unsheathed it had they had to, rattling the sabre remains in the realm of politics, and Parnell also had deployed the threat of violence toward successful political ends. But unlike his and the Loyalists’ threats of violence, both of which had the backing of a great bulk of the people, IRB violence in 1916 didn’t even have the full support of the IRB.
The UVF was the private army of a powerful political faction. It was highly disciplined, well organised and answerable to political masters who were public figures and directed it toward transparent political ends. The IRB was a small secret society and its rebellion was led by a cabal of dissidents in breach of its own constitution. It deceived its foot soldiers and nominal leaders alike. Its operations were “little short of madness” according to one of its own (WT Cosgrave). It was directed by the dreams of poets and the delusions of dead bards rather than by the strategic considerations of flinty-eyed far-seeing men. The IRB looked for the grand gesture, the Unionists toward the long haul. The Unionists made feasible plans, laid out their demands, and stuck to their guns; the IRB embarked on a fantasy, took aim at the moon, and fired their single-shot rifles. Thus they set anarchy loose on the land.
Also, IRB violence divided Nationalist Ireland, as the threat of Loyalist violence had united Conservative and much of Liberal Britain.
Most fatally for Ireland, IRB violence was in alliance with the country’s declared enemy, and its success was predicated on German victory in the Great War. Even had this come about and Ireland been given independence by a grateful Reich, the Loyalists promptly would have broken away back to Britain. The outcome would have been what it always was going to be: partition; merely different in detail and bloodier than it need have been. Irish violence, and the savage British response to it, washed away the life work of the IPP in a sea of blood, as Dillon so well put it, but that was tragedy, not political failure, one of the uncountable tragedies of that awful war, and the tragedy was Ireland’s. Dr Fanning’s claim that “the revisionist debate ... legitimises the self-delusions of the intellectual heirs to the constitutional nationalists” cannot be sustained after those aspects of violence that he leaves out are factored back in. The effect of the Rising was to create, as Erskine Childers recognised, “the official view of Ireland as a stab-in-the-dark rebellious province” (p 200), which was no help at all at the negotiating table.
This is where every war has to end, and the Republican plenipotentiaries proved a sorry lot. They were “simple”, thought Lloyd George; “they have none of the skills of the old nationalists” (p 278). They “despised politics as the art of the possible” (p 286) and kept demanding the impossible until told off to cop on or go home and prepare for war—real war, “immediate and terrible”. The only “self-delusion” here is not what Professor Fanning sets out to expose.
After seeing what happens when you send gunmen to do a statesman’s job, Professor Fanning’s reader may be forgiven for speculating on how John Dillon and a team of veteran IPP politicians would have done against the Welsh Wizard. Apart from their professionalism and experience in negotiation, rancour and bitterness would have been absent had there been no Troubles and no perceived betrayal, and the IPP would have had its own private army then too: the 10th and 16th Divisions who had gone to war for Home Rule, hard men who’d worn out a lot of khaki rather than virgins in tailored green uniforms. Now former comrades-in-arms, the private armies might have been more reluctant to fight than they would have been in 1914, but both their political leaders could rattle the sabre now, if need be. Partition, in some form and on some terms, was always going to be part of the deal but thousands of deaths, economic ruination, social fracturing, generations of bitterness, a neo-theocracy and decades of impoverishment and mismanagement by political neophytes, ideologues and rogues need not have been. History records that the Unionist fears which prompted extra-parliamentary opposition to Home Rule were fully founded; but it might have recorded otherwise had actual politicians been running the South as they were the North, and had there not been such violent destruction and impoverishment of our country that health and education had to be delegated to the charity of the Catholic Church, with all the democratic deficit and abuse of power, and collusion with that abuse, which stemmed from disaster that could have been avoided.
Professor Fanning condemns partition even as he provides abundant evidence of its inevitability, if not indeed its desirability from the point of view of all but Irish Nationalists. (And even they would find partition easier than governing a million rebellious Protestants.) He claims abandonment of “even the pretence that [the Government of Ireland Bill] could provide for the eventual reunification of the Ireland it was now partitioning”, but this is a contentious interpretation of what he has just quoted Walter Long as actually saying (pp 237-38). Negotiated reunification was provided for in the Council of Ireland, a component of that Bill, and we Irish were again the authors of our own misfortunes in the Border Commission fiasco, which saw that Council handed over to the tender mercies of James Craig. Likewise, by Nationalists’ misguided abstention from the Northern parliament, we permitted the Unionists to abolish the PR system which Westminster had installed to mitigate hegemony in Northern Ireland, evidence that though it certainly buckled under the threat of Unionist violence, the British government tried to deal with the Irish Question as fairly as it could in the end.
Professor Fanning dismisses the Council of Ireland, “a means of enabling Ireland to work out her own salvation”, as “worthy of Pontius Pilate” (pp 207-08). By then any real possibility of unity had been destroyed but the Council was at least a British gesture that might have been substantive had the IRB not tried to impose its will on the Unionists by force of German arms and “proved” Nationalist ill faith. Even still, Unionists took the Council seriously enough to grab control of it as soon as Nationalists fumbled the ball and gave away yet another own goal.
So eager does he seem to be to discount politicians that Professor Fanning can overlook their existence: “Never again [after 18 April 1918] were the elected representatives of Nationalist Ireland to sit at Westminster” (p 175). In fact the IPP rump of the Khaki Election did good work there in drawing attention to British atrocities, thereby embarrassing the government and helping to end a war the party did not start.
Perhaps the most surprising omission from this book is the All-for-Ireland League. As the Good Friday Agreement has been called Sunningdale for Slow Learners, Sunningdale was something of an AFIL for Special Needs, yet the League doesn’t even rate a mention. In examining a period in which Unionist intransigence, Nationalist self-delusion, and governmental cowardice led to national tragedy, the strategy of “conference, conciliation and consent” ought to be at least acknowledged. This strategy was in opposition to the violent course that Professor Fanning argues was inevitable, so examination of the AFIL would undermine his thesis; perhaps his omission isn’t all that surprising.
None of this is to exonerate the British from the tragedy Ireland suffered. They were in charge so responsibility, though not all blame, is theirs. The South finished what “the North began” and the British allowed that to begin, but some jobs are better left undone and this was one of them. If you take on to do something you become responsible for its consequences and you can’t whine, “They made me do it!” after you’ve ruined everything. A political truce was agreed in 1914 so no one forced the gun into Irish hands in 1916. Tom Clarke had been eyeing his chance for years before the North began anything, unknowing or uncaring of the electoral reforms and demographic changes that had made peaceful separation possible by political negotiation. Besides, what the North began delivered what Unionists wanted while what the South finished left the country a wasteland and killed stone dead the Nationalist dream of a united independent Ireland. There is nothing “self-delusional” in thinking that politicians would have done a far better job.
A quick cost-benefit analysis of the outcome for the three interest groups in contention makes this clear. The Treaty provided the British a “causeway” through the “bog” of the Irish Question (p 313), and brought them safely through. With Ireland now a land of owner-occupiers, by 1921 the strictly-British establishment’s concern was security and in an age of dreadnoughts and air power the military bases it retained in the North, and the Treaty Ports, gave it all it needed; the Hitler War showed that it didn’t even need the ports. Internal security problems, which emphatically did not go away, were now for the Irish to deal with, and we did so more ruthlessly than the British had since 1798. The cost? Through all the years of Troubles, less than the butcher’s bill for a very quiet day on the Western Front. After the Exchequer was saved millions by not having to subsidise the Free State as it did the North, net benefit to the British establishment from the new Dominion proved even greater. Poor Paddy was still on the railway, on the roads and in the tunnels, still grateful for a job and any crumbs from John Bull’s table as he kept on building England for the living wage his own country couldn’t pay him. Still raised on the same old songs and a few new stories, entertaining them all down the pub with how the dream of a fool came true and made his poor country a nation once again. And they say good on you Paddy with your boat-fare in your hand.
The Unionists got all they demanded and soon more. They had accepted the need to abandon their Southern constituency early on and this was a cost well repaid by negotiating the maximum territory they could be sure of controlling in perpetuity. Nationalist sulking then allowed them to throw out PR, which gave them unrestrained power in their polity, and Nationalist incompetence handed them the Council of Ireland, copper-fastening partition—enormous bonuses. Any attempt to take over the Six Counties now could be construed as unwarranted interference, “a mere struggle for domination” by hypocritical Nationalists, if they demanded self-determination for themselves but would deny it to others (p 218). The cost of this knock-down package-deal? A few hundred Catholics, B-men and policemen shot, and Catholic homes burned.
The cost to Nationalists was their country devastated; thousands killed; decades of economic, social and demographic decline; terrible truths that had to be whispered; and rank hypocrisy palmed off as sweet-smelling virtue. The benefit? “It wasn’t worth it,” according to Free Stater Emmet Dalton; diehard Dan Breen “wouldn’t have fired a shot” could he have foreseen the outcome.
If politicians could have done worse than this it would interest me to know how.
Despite my criticisms this remains a very good book, densely packed with facts and a quite easy read for all that. Its research
is impressive and Professor Fanning is perhaps less partisan that this review may suggest. He “explains rather than condemns” (p 5), and he explains rather well; I just don’t agree with all of his explanations and conclusions. He does not prove that “the bloody catalogue of assassinations and war ... was necessary” (p 4), but he does achieve a good deal. All followers of this thread could gain much from his book.