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John Swift

Judging Redmond and Carson, by Alvin Jackson, Royal Irish Academy, 304 pp, €30, ISBN: 978-1-908996-93-0

The opening paragraph of Alvin Jackson’s study may seem dramatic but it packs a punch. He writes: “Observers could note a black-clad Irish party leader, his face grey with exhaustion and strained with emotion, reverently attend Mass at Westminster Cathedral in London ... The mass-goer was Sir Edward Carson, attending the funeral of his friend, John Redmond.” And during the third Home Rule crisis, between 1911 and 1914, Jackson notes that in spite of their friendship and their Bar membership collegiality, there is little to suggest that Carson and Redmond ever met privately on their own in this period to explore, still less to try to resolve, their political differences. He concludes: “In substance, each depended largely on the British to deal with opponents from a different Irish tradition.” This observation is not totally irrelevant to the first fifty years of North/South politics in pre-Sunningdale Ireland.

The two vignettes capture the benefits of this kind of dual, compare-and–contrast biographical history-writing. The genre is well-established (on, for example, Hitler and Stalin, Wellington and Napoleon, Disraeli and Gladstone). Carson and Redmond were near contemporaries (born in 1854 and 1856 respectively), both had legal training, both went early into politics, both were leading figures in the UK parliament; as leaders of the two main opposing political movements in Ireland in the first decades of the twentieth century, it was natural for contemporaries to compare them, and they frequently did so. The juxtapositions and paradoxes, similarities and contrasts between the two leaders, and the movements they led, certainly add depth and extra fascination to the narrative.

Jackson’s is the fifth volume in the well-received “Judging” series published by the RIA. It is handsomely produced and profusely and imaginatively illustrated, with a good index and endnotes and a useful chronological summary, but no bibliography. It follows the earlier books on judging De Valera (Ferriter, 2007), Lemass (Garvin, 2009), William T Cosgrave (Laffan, 2014) and George Bernard Shaw (O'Toole, 2017). As with its predecessors, there is a graceful acknowledgement by the author of the helpful guidance received from Ruth Hegarty and the editorial team at the RIA. It is the first dual-biography in the series.

Jackson’s treatment of his two principal characters and of their mutually hostile political traditions seems fair and balanced. But he is clearly attracted more to the dramatic and decisive qualities in Carson than to the more urbane, even staid virtues of Redmond. His summing up gets the personal intertwined contrasts and paradoxes neatly: Redmond was more humane and balanced, perhaps a better family man, a steadier and more consistent worker, arguably more fit for ministerial office; Carson more decisive, a better judge of people and of risk, sounder on homework and detail, a good hater, in the round a better political leader in tactics and initiative, but often erratic. Carson was perhaps the truer Parnellite, the more effective home ruler, if in an opposing cause. It is possible that Redmond worked at presenting a public persona, senatorial and grave, deliberately at odds with the common English stereotype of Irish politicians. Carson, on the other hand, was seen by St. John Ervine as a stage Irishman, “the most notable of the small band of bedadderers and bejabberers left in the world”, in fact a typical “Mick on the make”.

In the second volume of his 2013 biography of Redmond, Dermot Meleady offers the opinion that rarely is the life’s work of a public person so comprehensively erased by history as was that of Redmond. I remember the strong sense of shock I personally felt when, following his dismissal by Garret FitzGerald in September 1986, former minister Eddie Collins, in a speech in Waterford, claimed that he had always been, and would remain, an unashamed Ballybricken Redmondite. It had never occurred to me to imagine that an active Redmondite political tradition still survived, at least in the South. The reproduction of a Fianna Fáil election poster of 1927 in Professor Jackson’s book, bidding the electors of Waterford to take the advice of their dead leader, and by voting Fianna Fáil show that they did not take orders from an English minister, illustrates how this tradition was not confined to those of a Cumann na nGaedheal persuasion. In the twenty-first century, the slow adjustment in the Republic to the reality of Northern unionism has sparked a re-evaluation of Redmondism, by historians in the first instance (notably Bew, Whately, Reid, Maume, James McConnel and Pat McCarthy); some politicians have also been tempted but so far, the politically inspired efforts have generated more heat than light.

The nub of Jackson’s work is in chapters four and five, on Home Rule and World War I respectively, covering the period 1911 to 1918, the section on Carson in Chapter 4 being perhaps the most interesting, especially in relation to Carson’s standing within the Tory Party and his prominent role in UK politics. As for the rest, in his introduction, Jackson notes that it is time to liberate his two biographical subjects from their respective historiographical silos and to view them together in at least some of the ways their contemporaries might have done. Chapter I, “Private Lives”, deals with family backgrounds and personality contrasts. Among other details, the financial insecurity of Carson’s family, which had no pretensions to Ascendancy grandeur, and Redmond’s harshness towards his nephew, who left the Benedictines after taking final vows, are covered. The chapter on Land and Law covers the early professional lives of the protagonists. That on Carson stresses his pre-eminence as a barrister and how this operated to his advantage when he entered politics. (Jackson defends his conduct vis-à-vis Oscar Wilde; in representing Queensberry, Carson’s careful homework and focused cross-examination fully exposed the ultra-foolishness of Wilde’s libel action, but he refused involvement in the subsequent prosecution of the writer, and advised leniency.)

The final preparatory chapter, on Unity and Marginality, leads into the main subjects by analysing the structural strengths and weaknesses of the Irish Parliamentary Party and of the Irish unionist movement in the 1890s and 1900s, and of their  leaderships. Both groupings were riven by personal and policy tensions; Redmond and Carson both came from the margins to lead. Redmond, from the minority Parnellite wing of the nationalists, won his leadership “by a fluke” and remained on, more chairman than leader, largely because Healy hated Dillon more than he disliked Redmond. Carson was as much an outsider to Belfast metropolitan unionism as Redmond was to a reunified Irish national party; for Belfast, he sacrificed in turn the Southern unionists from 1913  and the unionists of Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan in 1916. The last chapter, on Image, Memory and Commemoration, deals with the posthumous reputation and standing of the two; it is a satisfactory replacement for a bibliography. 

In introducing the two core chapters, Jackson presents the difference between the two leaders in blunt terms: the substance of Carson’s relationship with the Tories was that they came, to a very considerable extent, to be dependent on him, while Redmond’s problem was essentially that he grew ever more dependent on the Liberal government. The coverage of tactical manoeuvring in these chapters is subtle and compelling. This summary of the state of play between the parties in the summer of 1914 is one example among many:

A precarious form of deadlock was in place. Each side now had the measure of the other. Carson and the unionists knew that Liberal ministers were probably unwilling or unable to move against them, and they believed too that Asquith was committed to delay. Asquith and Redmond suspected both that Carson needed a swift resolution, and that he was simultaneously unwilling to risk precipitate action. Both Carson and Redmond knew that exclusion, in all probability without a time-limit, was on the cards. All parties grasped that the ultimate definition of exclusion would depend largely on the intensity of the political pressure on their enemies; and despite all of what had gone before, neither side as yet, in July 1914, felt the need to buckle.

In effect, the realisation that they had entered an end-game was not accepted until May 1916, with Europe in bloody conflagration and Ireland trying to come to terms with the Easter Rebellion.

Bonar Law became head of the UK Conservative and Unionist Party in November 1911. From at least late 1912, he owed his continued leadership to Carson, who had rescued him when he came close to resigning on tariff reform. It is reasonably certain that Law privately and unofficially knew of the Ulster gun-running plans well in advance of late April 1914. Jackson’s view is that it was hard to say which of the two was the leader of the other. From this point on, Carson and the Ulster unionists had a large degree of political autonomy, and they used it. As both Law and Lansdowne observed, there were advantages to the Tories in not knowing too much in advance, and for not taking responsibility for plans being hatched in Belfast. 

Law and Carson were both critical of Asquith’s handling of the war in 1914-15, but while Law remained relatively quiet in his post as colonial secretary, Carson resigned as attorney general in October 1915. Thereafter, he became chairman of the Unionist War Committee, pressed successfully for full-blooded conscription and even clashed with the Colonial Office on the issue of sequestered German assets. So while relations within the Tory party remained intimate, they were also from time to time tense and highly competitive. Relations within the government, and with Asquith, were also complex, especially on Ulster. Both the government and Carson saw clearly that Ulster brinkmanship and militancy was as much a war of nerves as of rifles; the question was who would crack first. What was at issue was exclusion (Partition), its territorial extent, and if it would be with or without a time-limit. By autumn 1913, Carson was moving from Partition as tactic (to block general Home Rule), to Partition as compromise (permanent, if necessary for six counties only). He opposed Lloyd George’s proposal of March 1914 for a county option with time limits, as “a sentence of death with a stay of execution for 6 years”.

Carson’s hand was undoubtedly strengthened by the Curragh Mutiny and the Larne gun-running, but he remained relatively cautious and politically restrained vis-à-vis hotheaded Orangemen and especially UK ministers. While Scott Oliver’s quip that talk of “restraining the Ulstermen” really meant “keeping Ulster on the boil” was not totally untrue, police reports generally pictured Carson as a moderate in Ulster terms. This was also the view of some contemporary observers, including Healy, JL Garvin and Horace Plunkett, who saw him as anxious to prevent the Ulster resistance degenerating into sporadic rioting, enflamed by sectarian animosities. Of course, like De Valera later, he also balanced private moderation with a more trenchant set of public postures. But above all, he worked hard at keeping his lines of communication open in the UK, and at reassuring UK ministers.

From the 1890s onward, Carson’s overall reputation in Westminster was that of the “big bad boy” of British politics, as portrayed in a famous cartoon by Carruthers Gould, published in May 1900 and referred to in Jackson’s text but not reproduced. His energy and decisiveness, together with an appetite for adversarial confrontation and his talent for words, frequently more direct and unminced than was customary, kept that reputation alive; he may have been tempted to keep living up to it, pace Montgomery Hyde, because only “big bad boys” could expect to win. Perhaps he could afford to do so also because his drive for success and hunger for victory in law cases was not paralleled by a sustained and focused ambition in politics.

Jackson’s analysis here is persuasive but I would have welcomed more extensive treatment of two points, Carson’s interest in devolution and his tolerance of sectarianism and intimidation. On the first, Carson mentioned in a letter to Bonar Law of September 1913, that his then preference was for a general scheme of federalism or devolution-all-round throughout the United Kingdom. This, and his consequent contact with the Milnerite Round Table movement, could have been explored further; it was an interest shared also by Redmond. (I once heard Brian Lenihan [Snr] express the opinion that the biggest mistake made by Britain in this period was not to move more swiftly to devolution.)

Jackson points out in an earlier chapter that the polarised nature of Irish politics under the Union meant that while Redmond had to act from time to time as a defender of general Catholic interests, Carson had also to serve effectively as a spokesman for Irish Protestantism. The distinction between representing bigoted and extremist views, refusing to publicly oppose them and inciting such views can be fine; but by threatening to recall the UVF in July 1919, and by his later attitude to intimidation and ethnic cleansing in the shipyards, Carson may have tipped that balance. In the latter case especially, his response (or lack of response) deserves stronger language than “highly circumspect”. One might surmise that Carson was passively tolerant of bigotry and racism for two reasons in addition to the immediate political factors: first, he was an innate ultra-conservative and second, he viewed Ireland not as a province or colony, not as a dominion or mere constituent nation of the empire, but as an essential component of the metropolitan core, the imperial heartland of the (Protestant) United Kingdom. This negative aspect of his life and work might have been explored further.

Taking chapters four and five together, on the evidence presented it is hard to avoid the impression that Redmond and the IPP had almost completely run out of steam by August-September 1914. On the major domestic topics prominent between then and Redmond’s death, Home Rule, the Easter Rebellion and Ulster unionism, Redmond was passive, reactive, almost apathetic; even his one initiative, his appeal to Irishmen to participate actively in World War I, was in part reactive (to Carson’s offer, made some days before, of the unconditional support of the UVF for the British war effort), as well as being a serious miscalculation in the medium and longer term. On Home Rule, while he had a few small, symbolic successes, he was yielding ground in relation to Partition from late 1912 onwards. Worse, his views were sometimes ignored, disregarded or forgotten by British ministers, including Asquith, not routinely, but often enough to matter. For example, he was promised the fullest consultation by Asquith in November 1913, then not seen by him again for six weeks, and had to face a new set of substantial demands for concessions to the unionists by February.

Redmond was profoundly shocked by the 1916 Rebellion and found it hard to articulate a suitable response. He and his party knew little of what was happening in separatist nationalist circles but relied on outdated models of the Fenian movement from the early 1890s. It was left to Dillon to react, which he did in a strong speech on May 1, praising the valour of the rebels and denouncing the relentless sequence of executions. The problems for the IPP were compounded when Asquith yielded to militant action what he had denied since August 1914 to the parliamentarians, viz reactivation of the Home Rule bill; according to Stephen Gwynn, it was the failure of the initiative managed by Lloyd George in late July 1916 which “really finished the constitutionalist party and overthrew Redmond’s power”.

A further miscalculation of Redmond’s was that, in spite of his regard for Carson, he never took Ulster unionism, particularly militant Ulster unionism, seriously. He and his party customarily described it in terms of “bigotry and bluff”; of course, it contained large elements of both but he had no counter-argument for those (including Birrell) who believed there might be more than bluff involved. He was too much an Irish nationalist but also too much of a parliamentary insider and imperialist to accept the paradoxical logic of a movement which went contrary to all his deepest beliefs. This led him also to overestimate the political courage of the British Liberals and to underestimate the duplicity of the Tories (and of Lloyd George). Jackson quotes Gwynn as reporting that Redmond felt acutely that the empire belonged as much to Irish nationalists as to English Tories.

While they headed opposing political traditions which defined themselves largely by contrast with the other, and while their temperaments were very different, it is evident from what has already been said that Carson and Redmond had a surprising amount in common. They were both relatively moderate and, in a nineteenth-century old-fashioned way, honourable. They understood each other, not only each other’s positions but also their strengths and weaknesses; Jackson notes that Carson knew that Redmond could not deliver nationalist Ireland while Redmond believed that Carson was essentially on the wrong side of history. They also had a keen appreciation of the other’s problems, if only because many of their problems were of a similar nature. In July 1916, Redmond was praising the “high and generous” line taken by Carson, whose “grave difficulties”, he said, “no-one appreciated better than himself”. And as early as 1908, he showed that he was capable of sharing some unionist strategies when he dismissed the idea that violent action in Ireland would necessarily alienate support: “the sounder view, in my opinion, is that you have got, in some way or other, to impress the English mind, that the Irish Question is a real, urgent one”. That is, he believed that the threat of violence in Ireland had the tactical value of persuading the English mind to focus for the required time on Irish affairs. 

Differences in personality and temperament between the two men were as important as their very different hopes for the future of Ireland. For Redmond’s style, Jackson uses the word “wheedling”. This seems harsh, but approaching the Liberal Party for financial help to rescue the IPP’s key press organ, The Freeman’s Journal, after its building was destroyed in 1916, was indeed highly compromising. (The request was quickly withdrawn.) On the other hand, Redmond was consistent in refusing office, most importantly a seat in Asquith’s wartime cabinet and membership of the privy council. Tellingly, he later hinted to Gwynn that a seat in the cabinet without portfolio and without salary would have been much more difficult to refuse. Jackson comments that it was in keeping with Redmond’s personality that he would not haggle over the terms under which he might enter government. Carson’s blunt directness was more effective.

This study makes it clear that Redmond was no pacifist. His Parnellite philosophy, like that of O’Connell, had close to its core the threat of violence, implicit or explicit, if Ireland’s just demands were not met. Beyond that, his position on armed struggle for Irish freedom and for war in defence of small nations and more generally for Christian and European values, was unambiguous. In his Maryborough speech of October 1900, he stated: “I have no faith and never had in English benevolence towards Ireland ... We have never got anything without making a movement dangerous and menacing towards England.” In Newry in 1897, his views on militancy were essentially pragmatic: “This is a mere question of expediency ... we would be morally justified tomorrow in using physical force, if we had it at our command.” His Woodenbridge oration of September 1914 asked the Volunteers to account for themselves as men “wherever the firing line extends, in defence of right and freedom and religion in this war”.

Of course, as a practising politician, Redmond’s views evolved as he responded to events and developments. But if he was opposed to military action in favour of Irish independence, this did not derive from a principled rejection of violence per se; nor was it only because a radically truncated version of Home Rule had finally been enacted (and then postponed). It was because he believed that, due not least to his efforts and that of his party, the character of British rule in Ireland had substantially changed in the previous twenty years. His speech in Wexford in October 1914 is as revealing as, but less frequently quoted than, his Woodenbridge address. He said then: “We today of our generation are a free people. We have emancipated the farmer ... housed the agricultural labourer, won religious liberty, won free education ... laid broad and deep the foundations of national prosperity ... and finally we have won an Irish Parliament and an executive responsible to it”. At best, this vision was a dream, and a work in progress rather than a fixed reality; the cataclysmic disaster of the World War, a series of major British blunders in relation to Ireland and the adoption of more extreme positions by unionists and nationalists showed up the fragility of the foundations on which it rested.

One reflection which this study suggests by implication is that the principle of Occam’s Razor (the lex parsimoniae or problem-solving rule that the simplest answer to or explanation of a problem is usually the best) does not apply to political questions or to relations between nations and states. In politics, and especially in political history, the opposite is more likely to be the case; complexity is more usual than simplicity and simple solutions are most likely wrong. This is certainly true of the revolutionary period 1913 to 1923 in Ireland. Binary black-white accounts, simple choices between heroes and villains, interpretations which proceed in straight lines from fixed principle to foregone conclusion may be required today for ideological or party-political purposes but they cannot satisfy in terms of truth; as was pointed out this year by President Higgins, there was in Ireland no simple, linear or exclusive path to national self-determination. 

A particular strength of this book is Jackson’s depiction of the very different personalities and temperaments of his two protagonists. He sketches their virtues and weaknesses in broad human terms, without too much psychological analysis. Thus, Redmond was unemotional, aloof, unflappable, conciliatory but non-sociable; behind the reserve, however, even some friends noted a genteel lack of drive and originality; he paid little attention to detail, and was too often and too easily “shocked” by events and developments. He was an easy man to parody: Tim Healy spoke cruelly of “a certain quality of jellyfishness” and Maud Gonne opined that he probably wore his favourite top hat in bed. By contrast, Carson had a strong need for friendship, male and female, and was highly emotional; he was moody, alternating between bursts of energy and recuperative periods of lethargy and near-collapse; throughout his life, he worried about health and financial security. He died rich in his eighty-first year; Redmond predeceased him by almost two decades, dying in debt in 1918.

I read Professor Jackson’s book immediately after finishing Fintan O’Toole’s analysis of Shaw in the same series. The cross-references between the two are oddly sparse. Although Shaw was born, like Redmond, in 1856, and was the best-known Irishman living in England for much of his long life (he survived Redmond by more than three decades), there is no reference to Redmond in O’Toole’s book and Shaw is not mentioned in Jackson’s. One set of speculative ideas which Redmond and Shaw shared was the future of the empire as a democratised or federal commonwealth, with an active role for an independent or home-ruled Ireland within it.

On the other hand, the one Shaw quotation in O’Toole’s book which mentions Carson is a gem. Shaw opposed Partition, but his second thought was that it would be more sensible “to make Ulster an autonomous political lunatic asylum, with Sir Edward Carson as head keeper, and an expensive fleet and a heavily fortified frontier to hold against the Pope, rather than to thwart her inclination in any way”. The substance of this is not that different from De Valera’s saner views on the North, as portrayed in his final book by Ronan Fanning.

Jackson clearly admires the stronger personality and more decisive leadership qualities of Carson. On the leadership issue, there can be little dispute. But there is a case to be made that Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had a surfeit of strong personalities and that caution, patience and a longer-term perspective might serve it better, that is to say better serve the Irish people in their totality, those who went to football matches as well as those who went to Bodenstown, and that, in this sense, the death of Redmond in early 1918 was a tragedy. This argument is a strong one, but it does require critical examination.

There are different political views on Redmond which I believe are open to question. In March this year, John Bruton reviewed together for The Irish Times Jackson’s book and Dermot Meleady’s selection of Redmond’s letters. In his article, he rightly stressed that Redmond achieved more than O’Connell, Butt or Parnell in terms of legislative independence; that while he could not prevent Partition, neither could his separatist successors; and that the Redmond/Carson meeting of minds in June 1916 on the Partition issue won support in Ireland not only from the IPP but from both unionists and nationalists in the North. His main point, however, was that all parties at Westminster, including the Conservatives, accepted in September 1918 that Home Rule for Ireland was both inevitable and necessary. This is misleading to the extent that he implies that implementation of the Home Rule Act was thereafter irreversible. Parties can and do change their opinions as circumstances change; not all members of all the parties at Westminster so agreed; and no agreement with a government or party which included Lloyd George could ever be considered irreversible.

In October 2014, Gerry Adams’s cannibalisation of the past for party political purposes was cruder and more blatant. He attacked an earlier article by John Bruton on Redmond and then asked the rhetorical question “Is it not strange that Mr. Bruton has nothing to say about the role of Redmond and his party in sending tens of thousands of Irishmen to fight Germans and Austrians and Turks ..?” This can only have been intended to deceive. Redmond’s position in regard to the Great War is not in dispute and his judgement on this as on other issues is certainly questionable. But there remains a significant difference between “send” and “ask”, “recommend”, “advocate” or even “persuade”. As an Irish nationalist MP in the UK parliament, with no formal ties to the UK executive or military, Redmond had no authorityor  power to send anyone anywhere.

These charges and comments constitute political point-scoring tied to the present day. Interpretations by historians trying to understand the past are more helpful. Roy Foster notes that Redmond died amid the wreckage of the Irish Convention, which brought a further possible version of Home Rule agonisingly close. Like Alvin Jackson, he applauds Redmond’s skill in holding his fractious party together, and in continuing to offer imaginative gestures of understanding to the unionist side, in spite of his looking on all forms of Partition as  “hateful expedients”. Foster quotes with apparent approval Meleady’s view that his motivation in doing so was to avoid “drowning the (putative) new-born Irish state in blood”.

There are different ways of being badly out of touch. Carson was a romantic elitist, described by Harry Carson and Louis Redmond-Howard as a medievalist. Redmond was a more modern figure but remote from emerging trends in Irish political reality. The poet/philosopher AE (George Russell) commented in the 1920s, with the benefit of some hindsight, that antipathy to British rule in the revolutionary years was no longer rooted in particularly tyrannical and exploitative governance; rather, it sprang from psychological factors, especially the memories of ancient wrongs, the cultivation of cultural differences and a belief in the therapeutic value of separation. The reason Redmond and his legacy were largely disregarded for so long after his death was that he ended up on the wrong side of the Zeitgeist; he and his followers were distant from the psychology and feelings listed by AE, and they paid the price. But as well as being a committed Irish nationalist Home Ruler, and broadly representative for nearly twenty years of majority opinion on the island, Redmond was, after all, one of the two leading members of the British establishment in Ireland. Before they died, both he and Carson would probably have acknowledged the relevance to themselves of Enoch Powell’s truism that all political careers end in failure.


John Swift retired from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in 2006. His last posts were as ambassador to Cyprus, ambassador to the Netherlands and permanent representative to the UN (Geneva).