Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-22, by Ronan Fanning, Faber & Faber, 448 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0571297399
Ronan Fanning has contrived to write a fresh and sparkling narrative of the course of Irish history from the Irish party gaining the balance of power at the election of January 1910, and retaining it in December 1910 to the establishment of the Northern Ireland and southern Irish states. This is no mean feat.
The high politics of the “Irish question” in this period is fairly well-trodden ground, in general or thematic works, and occupies daunting chunks of the biographies of the main players. While the end dates vary, the focus strikingly tends to narrow to the extraordinary thirteen-year period Fanning chooses. This saw the long-deferred prospect of the attainment of home rule with the enactment of the Parliament Act in August 1911 and the introduction of the third home rule bill in April 1912 (just over a quarter-century after Gladstone introduced the first) turn to ashes, and the turmoil that ensued in nationalist politics, leading to the foundation of the Free State in 1922 after the establishment of the Northern Ireland state by the Government of Ireland Act 1920.
The two-state outcome was engendered in circumstances of extraordinary political drama: the seemingly imminent triumph of the Irish parliamentary party under John Redmond’s leadership, to which nationalist Ireland prematurely adjusted its expectations; the emergence of a grimly formidable leader of Irish unionism in the person of Edward Carson in February 1910, coupled with the election of an implacably resolute defender of Ulster, Andrew Bonar Law, as leader of the Conservative party in the following year; the rise of marshalled resistance to home rule in Ulster abetted by the leadership of the Conservative party; the convulsive political crisis that ensued in British as well as Irish politics; the outbreak of the Great War, followed by the enactment of a suspended third home rule bill in September 1914; the 1916 rising; the death of Redmond in March 1918; Sinn Féin’s defeat of the Irish party at the general election of December 1918; the first meeting of Dáil Éireann on January 21st, 1919, with on the same day the killing of two policeman in an ambush at Soloheadbeg in Tipperary that marked the inception of the War of Independence; the enlistment of British recruits in the Royal Irish Constabulary (the “black and tans”); “Bloody Sunday” on November 21st, 1920; the opening of the Northern Ireland parliament by George V in June 1921; the truce between the IRA and the British army in July 1921; the Anglo-Irish conference in London in October and December 1921 that issued in the signing of the treaty; the approval of the treaty by the Dáil in January 1922; the pact election of May; the IRA incursions into the Pettigo-Beleek triangle of Fermanagh; the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson in London by the IRA; the deaths successively of Griffith and Collins in the autumn, eight months before the ending of the civil war in April 1923.
Nicholas Mansergh’s magisterial The Unresolved Question: The Anglo-Irish Settlement and its Undoing was published in 1991. Ten years ago, Alvin Jackson’s Home Rule: An Irish History 1800-2000 appeared. Jackson deploys the paradoxical concept of the Ulster Unionist embrace of a form of home rule. Fanning characterises Ulster unionist resistance to home rule as a revolution. It says much of the shifting sands of the period ‑ sands that have not ceased to shift ‑ that both approaches are valid. George Dangerfield published his engaging The Damnable Question: A Study in Anglo-Irish Relations in 1976, a coda to his incisively elegiac The Strange Death of Liberal England, a post mortem in which Ireland featured prominently.
Much much more has been written, and it is one of the outstanding merits of Fanning’s work that he draws with elegant succinctness on the scholarly writings touching his subject. The net is cast wide into the depths of British high politics. What he has perfected is the graceful marriage of reference to secondary sources to his grasp unrivalled among contemporary Irish historians of the mainly British primary sources. His syncretic method cannot be overpraised, a late efflorescence of the extraordinary school of history in University College Dublin, a university now in infuriatingly self-inflicted institutional crisis. It is a monument to that school, one hopes not funerary. For a graduate of UCD of my generation one can see distantly filtering through the text the faint and slightly dropsical smile, with drooping cigarette, of TD Williams. Williams, who died in 1987, brought to the history of modern Ireland a scepticism sharpened by his immersion in European interwar diplomacy.
Ronan Fanning’s prose is strikingly fluent, and his characterisations of the usually remote and untreated figures on the British side exemplary and entertaining. It is a recurrent feature of history of this type that, the main players apart, characters are often left unexplored, so that the Irish (or perhaps at this stage any) reader is left to invest their names with this or that imagined characteristic, as we may perhaps imagine an unfamiliar destination emblazoned on the front of a London bus, or a tube train destined for the further reaches of the underground. Fanning resolutely sets out to correct this in a glittering sequence of vignettes. His analysis of the strikingly inept design of the Parliament Act is masterly, and works as a kind of prelude to the substantive politics of home rule and Irish independence in which neither side was exempt from the laws of unintended consequences.
If a dominant theme emerges, it is the cynicism of the post-Gladstonian Liberal leadership in relation to home rule, and what Fanning sees as the culpable gullibility of Redmond and Dillon. The portrayal of Herbert Henry Asquith, Liberal leader and prime minister in the crucial years 1910-16, who tends to be given the benefit of the doubt in sanguine moderate nationalist readings of the period, is biting, and will endure. If there is a hero in this determinedly anti-heroic narrative, it is Lloyd George, whom Redmond’s successor, John Dillon, came morosely to believe had set out purposely to destroy the Irish party. He “solved the Irish question in the form in which it had bedevilled British politics since 1886”. His statement to the House of Commons in December 1919 provides the book’s epigraph, and its title: “There is a path of fatality which pursues the relations between the two countries and makes them eternally at cross purposes.” Lloyd George’s haunting observation goes to show that politicians, at the height of their utterance, are as serenely exempt as poets from the ordinary laws of expression.
The reservations I have in relation to Fatal Path derive in part from the constraints that inhere within the genre of close high political analysis, and in part from what Prof Fanning has to say in his introduction, which is rendered down in the publisher’s blurb from Faber.
As to the limitations of the genre, even though Ronan Fanning provides an introductory chapter entitled “Gladstone’s legacy” it is necessarily an abbreviated prelude. Close analysis of 1910-22 unavoidably occludes what went before. The Parnell era, and the catastrophe of his overthrow is relegated to a distant political time. In one sense the Parnell era was in the weirdly accelerated temporality of Irish nationalism already remote, but its legacy and the fall-out of the split continued to be of consequence. The Irish party emerged from the ten-year split 1890-1900 institutionally enfeebled in Ireland, and tightly locked into the logic of the Liberal-nationalist alliance with sharply diminished leverage. Somewhere along the way, whether as a result of the split in Parnell’s lifetime or by insensible steps thereafter, the party had compromised its independent agency.
Astringently high political analysis abstracts from how parliamentary nationalism got to where it was, and from politics on the ground. There are hazards in an aphoristically judgemental ex post facto mode of analysis. The Irish party in its heavily laden post-split trajectory failed and failed dismally. It is however somewhat facile to couple that failure with Liberal private and public admissions of a kind of negative opportunism in relation to home rule, which Fanning collates to devastating effect, to deride the judgement of the leadership of the Irish party. The Irish party in the position in which it found itself, having trumpeted the imminence of home rule for a quarter century, had to wager all on the game, something of which Asquith in particular was cruelly conscious.
It is true that the tide was going out on home rule since before Gladstone’s retirement, and Margaret O’Callaghan has argued forcefully that it was already in trouble by the time of the Special Commission before the Parnell split. The Irish party was nevertheless dealt an unexpectedly good hand in 1910 and played that initial hand with competence and resolve. It was impotent in the face of the organised resistance of Ulster sustained by the leadership of the Conservative party, which, however extra-constitutional, the Liberal government was not prepared to face down. The Irish nationalist electorate was wholly unprepared for partition, but the Irish party might have survived a partitionist home rule settlement in a time of peace. Its grip was radically undermined by the Great War, and Redmond’s improvident advocacy of enlistment, and the Easter Rising marked less the beginning than the middle of the end.
The unpalatable truth is that the main lines of the narrative were indelibly inscribed from the outset, and aggravated by the war. However one characterises the actions of the Ulster Unionist and Conservative leaderships, those actions were undertaken on the correct premise that in British politics the “coercive” inclusion of the northeast in a home rule Ireland was unacceptable, easily presented by unionist publicists as a dismemberment of the United Kingdom and a dagger pointed at the heart of the British empire. One struggles to see where had the Irish party played a different hand it would have significantly affected the outcome, to identify the decisive moment where history could have engaged a different thread.
No matter how sternly realistic one tries to be, the remorseless course of adverse events from an Irish perspective, its ghastly rolling inexorability, remains extremely exasperating and profoundly depressing. At times the Irish question in its final parliamentary phase resembles a vast deserted asylum whose last inhabitants are its historians, who come to fear in the manner of The Magic Mountain that having arrived as visitors they have become confined as inmates.
Fanning is far too good a historian to blame Redmond’s Irish party for partition, though he does occasionally get a little carried away, writing of the personal amity of Lloyd George and Bonar Law that “the full flowering of that fellow-feeling swiftly smothered antagonism in Lloyd George’s coalition government and provided the bedrock for the partition of Ireland”. His basic point is that the IRA campaign in the war of independence was necessary to move Lloyd George’s Conservative-dominated government to a settlement beyond the confines of “the 1914-style limitations of the Government of Ireland Act of 1920”. Mansergh expressed an essentially similar view a quarter of a century ago. The paradigm of an Irish settlement that derived from Gladstone’s conception of home rule was already obsolete, post-Versailles. The establishment of a Northern Ireland parliament introduced an asymmetry that could not be sustained. The demand for legislative independence across forty years from Parnell to Sinn Féin was unequivocal. From the British perspective, there was a void in which there had to be an Irish settlement, and it was given a significant further push by the IRA campaign. There is a strange sense in which the violence could be said to have conformed to the needs of the British government. A settlement could only be politically with Sinn Féin and militarily with the IRA. It is hard to disagree with Fanning’s view, in part because events had reached a point that did not admit of counterfactuals. With whom else on the Irish side could there have been a settlement?
In relation to the conduct of the treaty negotiations themselves there is a supplement of asperity in Fanning’s criticisms of Arthur Griffith in particular. It is odd how many historians for one reason or another disesteem the much misunderstood Griffith, indicted successively for being too narrow-mindedly obdurate and not inflexible enough.
In his introduction Fanning has a side-swipe against revisionists, using the term in its Irish political sense. Enlisting a quotation from (curiously enough) Bernard Lewis, he states “there is no better description of how and why throughout Northern Ireland’s long war the British and Irish political establishments sought to control the presentation of the history of 1912-22 in order to buttress and legitimise their own authority while at the same time denying legitimacy and authority to the Provisional IRA and other paramilitary forces”. This seems to me trite and faintly offensive, but it does enunciate the prevailing historiographical wisdom. History unceasingly evolves, never more so than on what was in British politics called “the Irish question”. Later events force one to reconsider earlier events, and to suggest otherwise is an exercise in a kind of strange temporal political correctness. Conor Cruise O’ Brien (not mentioned by name, in itself a feature of the primness of the current academic orthodoxy) certainly questioned the necessity for the IRA campaign in the war of independence, but he did so primarily in the context of querying the destructive consequences of anti-partitionist rhetoric in southern politics and the exaltation of political violence. It is moreover a travesty of politics in the Republic to imply that it was felt necessary to repudiate the proximate origins of the state in the war of independence to condemn the campaign of politico-sectarian murder prosecuted by the IRA in the troubles. (The striking resurgence of Michael Collins as an Irish popular hero in recent years does not suggest that most Irish people are discomfited by the war of independence, or have difficulty distinguishing between the IRA of that war and the IRA of the Northern Ireland troubles. Perhaps historians who share Fanning’s view will suggest that the memory of Collins would not have made its contemporary ascent if it were not for the Good Friday agreement. Though absurd, this would at least have the merit of consistency.)
If one accepts that partition in some form was inevitable, the principal casualty of the course of events expertly chronicled in Fatal Path was Irish nationalist self-confidence which seeped into statehood. Majoritarian support for the treaty and pride in the establishment of an independent Irish state weirdly coexisted with a sense of betrayal and defeat, fortified by the unassuageable sense of guilt that southern nationalists had abandoned their northern brethren to their fate in the deeply inhospitable institutions of the Northern Irish state. With Fianna Fáil’s entry into the Dáil and government this complex became inextricably woven into the fabric of Irish party politics. The pall of woundedness was not dispelled by the achievements of the independent Irish state under successive governments and had profoundly retrograde consequences. It endured into the late nineteen-fifties and was not then quickly dispelled.
That sense of despair, and the curious combination of passivity and mystical nationalist elan to which it conduced, had its origin in the escalating setbacks sustained by the Irish party 1910-18. Irish nationalists had been nurtured since Parnell’s time on the promise of unitary home rule. Whatever the inevitability of a two-state outcome, the manner in which it unfolded to 1918 ‑ the militaristic marshalling of resistance in Ulster followed by a series of stepped compromises at Westminster in which the Irish party found itself constrained to acquiesce ‑ was catastrophic. It is difficult to conceive of a script more wounding to nationalist self-belief. It is arguable, at least in the extended and perhaps artificial hindsight of the history of the early decades of independence, that the better course would have been for the Irish party to have made a virtue of its impotence, and held aloof from ratifying the successive concessions to Ulster unionism. It could have gone further and effaced itself at the 1918 election in favour of Sinn Fein. That of course is not how political parties tend to behave, but it is an option that John Redmond’s brother William, who alone of the older cadre of the Irish party retained something of the imaginative resilience of his Parnellite youth, contemplated in the interval between the 1916 rising and his death on the western front in June 1917. He is unlikely to have been alone. The momentum of the great party of Parnell had turned alchemically to lead. The Irish party remained in any event adamantly opposed to Sinn Féin’s doctrine of parliamentary abstentionism, and at the 1918 election retained a much higher level of electoral support than its exceedingly meagre haul of seats might suggest.
My principal disagreement with Ronan Fanning relates to some of the sentiments expressed in the introduction which I happen to find provoking but which do not inform the mordant assuredness of his narrative. Fatal Path is an admirable centennial accretion to the quite short shelf of indispensable works on the tormented decade or so in the crucible of which the modern Irish state was formed.
Frank Callanan is a Senior Counsel practising in Dublin and a historian. He has written The Parnell Split (1992) and T. M. Healy (1996). He is currently writing a book on the influence of Parnell and of the Parnell split on James Joyce, and Joyce’s treatment of the Parnell myth.