Activities Wise and Otherwise: The Career of Sir Henry Augustus Robinson 1898-1922, by Brendan O’Donoghue, Irish Academic Press, 500 pp, €29.99, ISBN: 978-0716532996
Irish history has long been dominated by the nationalist narrative, which has also served as political propaganda. As a result, the internal history of the governance of Ireland before independence was, until recently, marginalised. An important part of that governance was local government, which was responsible for roads, public housing, welfare and health services. It became more democratic as the nineteenth century progressed, culminating in the landmark Local Government Act 1898 (the “1898 Act”), which created county councils and urban district councils elected on a broad franchise of householders. This broader franchise was extended to existing local authorities in towns and cities, such as Dublin Corporation. These local authorities all operated under the aegis of the Local Government Board, which had evolved in the 1870s from the Poor Law Commissioners set up at the time of the Famine. It discharged the then less developed functions of government which are nowadays discharged by several departments of state including those of local government, health, social protection and transport.
The government minister responsible for Ireland, known as the chief secretary, was president of the board and answered for it in parliament but played little part in its day-to-day administration. The effective head was the vice-president, who was assisted by two commissioners, one of whom was a medical doctor, and a bevy of officials headed by auditors and inspectors of various kinds. The vice-president during the last quarter of a century of what is often rather tendentiously described as “British rule” was Sir Henry Augustus Robinson, whose career is the subject of this book.
The author, Brendan O’Donoghue, is admirably qualified to write an account of Robinson’s career. Before putting all scholars in his debt by his superb management of the National Library as its director from 1997 to 2003, he had spent most of his civil service career in the department of the independent state that took over the functions of the Local Government Board. Ending up as its secretary-general, he was effectively the successor of the board’s vice-president and is conscious of how much his department owed to the organisational foundations laid by Sir Henry. The author’s singular insight into the problems his subject would have faced in his working life gives a valuable extra dimension, enhancing the formidable historical scholarship displayed. While not purporting to be a full biography of the man whom the author believes to have been the original of a higher official called Bates in George Birmingham’s novel Irishmen All, the book has quite a lot of interesting detail on Robinson’s life before and after his years as vice-president of the Local Government Board.
He was born in 1858 into a landed family with a service tradition whose Westmeath estates had been sold up as insolvent in the 1850s. In 1879, while on a private visit to Galway, he was taken by a young priest to a mountain village where he was appalled by the sight of starving people. A report he sent to Thomas Burke, the under-secretary in Dublin Castle subsequently murdered by the Invincibles, impressed Lord Randolph Churchill, then in Dublin assisting his father the duke of Marlborough, the lord lieutenant. This led to Robinson’s appointment as an inspector in the Local Government Board, where his father had just been appointed vice-president. As an inspector in poor areas of Galway and Mayo, much of Robinson’s work involved combating the numerous frauds that surrounded the relief of starvation and distinguishing cases of starvation from the general poverty that did not qualify for relief. He observed that money given to the poor ended up boosting the Christmas offerings of local clergy and the profits of shopkeepers, both of whom he would have seen as much more exploitative of the rural poor than the latter-day landlords.
Robinson became a commissioner when his father retired as vice-president in 1892, and was himself appointed vice-president in 1898. As such he was responsible for drafting the 1898 Act, which was the brainchild of the Tory chief secretary Gerald Balfour and was an early instalment of what came to be known as the policy of “killing Home Rule by kindness”. The Act was followed by elections in 1899, where nationalists formed the majority of those returned in all but four counties in the northeast.
Although there had previously been elected corporations in major cities such as Dublin and elected Poor Law guardians were responsible for Poor Law Unions, the 1898 Act, with its franchise of all householders, male and female, deserves to be regarded as the real birth of modern Irish self-government. Those elected to local authorities under it exercised more power than was to be allowed to them in independent Ireland.
The Local Government Board had responsibility for auditing the accounts of the local authorities, for ensuring that they acted in accordance with law and for channelling central funds to them for such purposes as houses and roads. The normal friction between the regulator and the regulated was accentuated by political differences between nationalist politicians who dominated the new bodies and those of unionist tendency who predominated in the upper echelons of the board. Reporting to Balfour on resolutions passed by a county council favouring Home Rule and denouncing England’s tyranny and the money taken from the blood and bowels of Ireland, Robinson thought they could be disregarded, adding that “Ireland would be a dull country without its resolutions and romance and its delicious grievances”.
Misappropriation of public funds and the appointment of persons without the minimum qualifications to posts were more practical causes of discord with the board. The local authorities were dominated by small property owners who were reluctant to add to the rates they would have to pay by expenditure on medical services or housing for the poor. Only when funds were made available by government, as was done for cottages under the Labourers Act 1906, were improvements made. It is not clear whether the abysmal housing of the poor in Dublin and other places was mainly the fault of the local councillors or the Local Government Board or some other agency of central government. There was jobbery in local government appointments and affecting contracts awarded by local authorities that seems to have been largely tolerated by the board, provided proper procedures or other formalities were observed.
Detailed assessment of the performance of the board under Robinson is problematic because its records were destroyed when the IRA burnt down the Custom House in the last weeks of the War of Independence on May 25th, 1921. There appear to be no local government archives to illuminate the picture from another perspective. Henry Robinson’s own papers were, on his own account, lost when his house in Foxrock was raided by republicans in 1922. His memoirs are not that informative. Annual reports of the Local Government Board, parliamentary debates, occasional law cases and newspaper reports of meetings of local authorities have yielded little. With scholarly thoroughness the author has tracked down materials in the papers of Gerard Balfour, Walter Long, James Bryce, Augustine Birrell, Matthew Nathan and others in archives in Britain. They provide some interesting snapshots – but no more.
The picture of Robinson that emerges from this book is of a commanding figure – he stood well over six feet – and an efficient administrator rather than a visionary or reformer, a short-term operator whose main boast for himself was that he had kept his political masters, successive chief secretaries, out of trouble. House-trained civil servant that he was, he accepted that it was his role to carry out policies laid down by his political masters once he had pointed out the pitfalls. His approach was never better exemplified than in relation to the introduction in 1908 of the old age pensions, about which he had grave reservations as he was certain that the benevolence of government would be massively abused by “a class of people who have brought scheming for the purposes of obtaining state and charitable aid to a pitch of perfection”. Yet once the legislation was enacted he conducted what the author describes as “a remarkably efficient and successful drive” to ensure that pension payments flowed from the due date.
A lifetime in the Local Government Board encountering people of every class all over Ireland gave Robinson a feel for the country that was unusual if not unique in the upper echelons of the Irish administration. He was sensitive to the need to work through the clergy, both because they were community leaders and because welfare and medical services depended on them. The author has unearthed from the papers of Sir Matthew Nathan a warning from Robinson not to get into a conflict with the Catholic clergy on infant life protection, an issue they “are feverishly anxious to keep in their own hands” when “we must rely largely on the help of the RC clergy if we are to make any mothercraft scheme a success”. “If advice of this kind had been available – or had been heeded – by a minister for health some thirty five years later when another mother and child scheme was being formulated,” remarks the author, “the political history of the 1950s might have been very different.” It is well to be reminded that the interdependence of state and church in the provision of public services in these areas long ante-dates the independent Irish state.
As far as nationalist politicians were concerned, Robinson and the Local Government Board represented the Protestant Ascendancy, resisting the ascent to political power of the representatives of nationalist Ireland. His own social milieu was among the unionist landowners of the Kildare Street Club, where he lunched daily when he was working in Dublin. He was charged with bias against Catholics in appointments and promotions. Arthur Griffith described the Board as the fountainhead of corruption – nationalist rhetoric at the time was a rather contradictory mixture of complaints about discrimination against Catholics in public employment and the berating as British flunkeys of those Catholics who took up such employment.
After careful analysis of figures showing that Catholics were in a minority at various levels in the board the author concludes that this can be explained only by Robinson’s willingness to participate in the Protestant-dominated networks which continued, during his term of office, to influence advancement in business and some of the professions as well as the civil service. He lines up with recent historians Fergus Campbell and Eunan O’Halpin, who have disputed earlier writing claiming that there was a significant “greening” of the administration of government in Ireland before 1914.
It must be said that Catholics, albeit usually not ones with strong nationalist associations, were prominent among the commissioners and senior staff of the board. Robinson had not the sole say in appointments and interference by chief secretaries was not infrequent; under the Tory government in office from 1895 to 1906, this would not have favoured nationalists or even non-nationalist Catholics, who tended to support the Liberal party. James McElligott, a university graduate who had joined the Local Government Board in 1913, complained that it was an office where a Protestant freemason clique looked askance at papists. Certainly, there was scope for patronage as there were no competitive examinations other than at a junior level. But on the evidence it is difficult to see Robinson other than as a person who would have wanted the most efficient he could find – his respect for ability was evidenced by the manner in which he moved to protect the very able but openly nationalist McElligott in the wake of his alleged participation in the Easter rebellion. Such bias as Robinson had against Catholics would almost certainly have been confined to those who were nationalist. This could have been justified in his professional judgment by the need to have officers who would stand up to local authorities dominated by nationalist politicians, who were, incidentally, shameless in the bias they displayed in appointing those they regarded as their own.
In 1913, resisting suggestions from the Royal Commission on the Civil Service that competitive examinations should be introduced for inspectors in the Local Government Board, Robinson said he could not conceive of any form of examination which would provide men who knew the country and the land, understood the minds of the guardians and of the people, knew the condition of agriculture in different districts and could cope with crises and emergencies, adding that one of the best inspectors they ever had, a Colonel Kirkwood, could not write English or spell but his “judgment was so sound, and his diagnosis so unerring and his influence with guardians so amazing that he was worth his weight in gold”.
Ironically, political bias played a large part in denying Robinson the senior post in the Irish administration, that of under-secretary in Dublin Castle. Successive governments from 1909 onwards drew back from appointing him because he was a hard-line Kildare Street Club unionist not acceptable to the political leaders of nationalist Ireland. He accepted this with remarkable good grace.
Chief secretaries, both Conservative and Liberal, were driven around Ireland by him – he was an enthusiastic early motorist – and came to rely on Robinson’s extraordinary knowledge of the country and its people in seeking his advice on political questions not within the remit of the Local Government Board. These were the activities that the author had in mind in giving his book the title Activities Wise and Otherwise – a play on the title of Robinson’s own memoirs, entitled Memories Wise and Unwise. This book bids fair to fill the gap left by these memoirs, which contained excellent pen pictures of a succession of chief secretaries and under-secretaries but little on how Robinson influenced them.
When partition was first mooted as a solution in the face of unionist resistance to Home Rule, Robinson advised Chief Secretary Birrell on a suitable boundary with maps that the author has located with Birrell’s papers in Oxford’s Bodleian library; it is an important contribution to the history of the period. Wisely, Robinson advised that south Armagh and Newry should not be included in the area excluded from Home Rule “because Crosmaglen nationalists are about the warmest lot I know – we had hideous trouble with them in the bad times and they are largely in excess of the Protestants in their corner of County Armagh”. By contrast he would have disregarded local demographics to exclude the Fermanagh districts of Enniskillen and Lisnaskea although they had a Catholic majority, arguing:
these Enniskillen and Lisnaskea protestant farmers are the most blood-thirsty set of ruffians I know and there would be no peace or settlement along the whole border line if these people were left out of the excluded area. They would stir up the Cavan and Monaghan people and be an endless source of trouble to the Irish parliament.
By this time Robinson was reconciled to the inevitability of Home Rule. His initial reaction to the Ulster resistance was dismissive: “the sound policy was to let them screech and yell till they were tired”, he advised Birrell. Later, he suggested Home Rule within Home Rule rather than exclusion. Impressed by the subsequent support of Redmondite nationalists for the war, he felt that this would destroy the hatreds and allay the fears that were keeping Catholics and Protestants apart, predicting “you will have a real good chance of home rule by consent after the war”.
It has been suggested that if Robinson rather than Matthew Nathan had been under-secretary he would have prevailed upon the government to move against the Volunteers in advance of the 1916 rebellion. As it was, fearful that such action would undermine the Irish Party and believing that the Volunteers would not embark on a battle they must lose, the authorities held back, disregarding good intelligence on the imminence of rebellion. “It is certainly reasonable,” concludes the author judiciously, “to suggest that events in Ireland in that period would have been quite different if he, rather than Nathan, had been under-secretary – but the likelihood is that instead of averting the crisis he would have brought matters to a head long before April 1916.”
Robinson was on holiday in Mayo at Easter when the rebellion broke out and hurried back to Dublin, where, at some risk to himself and deploying his skills as an organiser, he chaired a committee that restored food supplies to the city. In its wake he had to deal with the case of James McElligott, who was among the Volunteers arrested at the end of hostilities. McElligott claimed that a group of his former Volunteer associates had forced him at gunpoint to join them in the General Post Office. On this basis Robinson tried unsuccessfully to resist a recommendation of dismissal made by the commissioners examining the cases of civil servants who had taken part in the rebellion. The author doubts whether McElligott was such “an innocent abroad”, citing his application for a military service pension in 1953 in which he relied on his active service during Easter Week. He was then governor of the Central Bank.
Robinson saw it as a time to impose order, not embark on the conciliation of nationalists, and he was supportive of Walter Long who, with Lord Lansdowne, upset in cabinet the agreement reached between Lloyd George, Carson and Redmond that would have brought the Home Rule Act into immediate effect outside what subsequently became Northern Ireland. Whether this would have restored the primacy of the Irish Party and averted the rise of Sinn Féin and further violence is one of the interesting historical speculations about that period. The triumph of Sinn Féin was made certain by government moves in 1918 to impose conscription, which were dismissed by Robinson as sheer madness.
Robinson had little reason to come to the rescue the Irish Party, who had been constantly critical of him in the House of Commons, and the jobbery of whose followers in Ireland disgusted him. He was respectful of the idealism and honesty of the Sinn Féiners whose victory in the 1918 election he foresaw. He believed that the government should engage with moderate Sinn Féin politicians such as de Valera so as to detach them from those who had embarked on violence once more. Sharing the general southern unionist aversion to a partition that would leave them as an isolated minority in southern Ireland, he made unsuccessful efforts to enhance the powers of the Council of Ireland contained in the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, which envisaged Home Rule parliaments for northern and southern Ireland.
After the local elections in January and June 1920, the Sinn Féin-dominated local authorities ceased to recognise the Local Government Board and swore allegiance to the shadow department established by the government of the Irish Republic. These local authorities repudiated their legal liability to compensate those whose property suffered malicious damage. The government responded in July 1920 with legislation enabling the Local Government Board to withhold grants. Robinson was blamed for this in the memoirs of a fellow official and by Sinn Féin junior minister Kevin O’Higgins, who described him as the most formidable enemy of the independence movement. In fact, Robinson opposed the policy of withholding grants and loans from recalcitrant local authorities as he feared that it would discourage the nationalist population from working the Government of Ireland Act.
Dutiful civil servant that he was, Robinson stayed on past his preferred retirement date to ease the transfer of powers to the provisional government established pursuant to the Treaty of December 1921 creating the Irish Free State. He found Michael Collins, its chairman, cordiality itself as he grasped his hand and those of other heads of department who might have had doubts about shaking a hand stained by outrage and crime. Cosgrave, who took over the Local Government Board, is on record expressing appreciation of Robinson being helpful.
In memoirs written in 1923 Robinson claimed that he had opposed what he described as the surrender to Sinn Féin that culminated in the Treaty. He maintained that the IRA were on the verge of defeat when the truce was agreed in June 1921, adding that they would all have accepted the terms agreed under the Treaty if the Crown Forces had pressed on, so averting the later Civil War.
This may have been a correct appreciation of the military realities, and there can be no doubt that the conviction that the IRA would have been able to carry on the fight successfully led many to oppose the Treaty. But the author’s assiduous research examining the Lloyd George papers has yielded documentary evidence that this was not the position taken by Robinson at the time. On the contrary, he endorsed the confidential advice given to the cabinet in April 1921 by Sir John Anderson, the effective head of the administration in Ireland, to the effect that the time was ripe for a unilateral declaration that British military activity would temporarily cease. The object of this was to bring about the truce that occurred two months later. The author has found no contemporary record of Robinson’s immediate reaction to the measure of independence akin to dominion status contained in the Treaty signed on December 6th, 1921, but it is hard to believe that he would have disapproved. He must have known that Anderson, with whom he was in close touch, envisaged this as the outcome of the negotiations that followed the truce. It was also the outcome accepted as the only possible road to peace by Andrew Jameson and other leading southern unionists. They were relieved that there was no republic and that the new Irish Free State was still in the empire.
It is possible that the burning of the Custom House changed Robinson’s views. But it seems more likely that his regrets came when the country descended into anarchy in the early months of 1922 with disastrous consequences for him personally and for many other southern unionists. Plans he entertained for staying on in his house in Foxrock were frustrated by an IRA raid. On the advice of the Free State government he retreated to England, railing against the haste with which the British government had withdrawn their forces after the Treaty, leaving loyalists like himself exposed to outrages.
Ever industrious, before his death in England in 1927 he wrote two volumes of memoirs full of nostalgia for what was for him “the Isle of Long Ago” and containing entertaining yarns about its inhabitants that lost nothing in the telling. Their serious message was an indictment of Lloyd George and others in government for yielding to pressure from the British press and radicals in parliament to surrender to Sinn Féin. This confirmed the view of him as a reactionary, unyielding opponent of nationalist aspirations, to which this biography is a valuable corrective. In the second volume of memoirs he alleged “that outrages upon women by the Sinn Féin and Rebel armies were among the most dreadful features of the rebellion”, remarking that it was strange “that a people whose reputation for morality stood higher for centuries than that of any other nation in the world should have sunk to the lowest depths in this respect during their struggle for the establishment of an Irish republic”. This may be another of the great silences or cover-ups of modern Irish history to be confronted in the coming years when our government moves to celebrate the War of Independence.
Charles Lysaght is the author of Brendan Bracken, A biography(1979) and editor of Great Irish Lives (2008).