From Irish Political Review: October 2007

What Is To Be Done!…The Responses

I have been hearing some criticisms in Belfast and Dublin of last month's Hibernianism article. One of these concerned the futility of vulgar abuse. Another was that the Ancient Order of Hibernians is no longer a power in the land. Taken together I suppose they equal a complaint that vulgar abuse to be of some utility should be topical.

Point taken.

But then how am I to describe an Irish President, God Bless Her, and her saying the likes of this:

"It is an honour to be here at the opening of this exhibition commemorating the Battles of Guillemont and Ginchy, part of the heroic struggle of the Battle of the Somme fought over ninety years ago. Congratulations to Dr Ian Adamson, Carol Walker and all the members of the Somme Association for this labour of love which allows the stories of those who fought and died to be honoured and respected and better known by a new generation."

"Last year two very significant events in the history of this island, the 90th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and the 90th Anniversary of the Easter Rising, were the subject of elegant and moving official commemorations in Dublin. Both events shook and shaped the destiny of this island. In the generations since, Irish men and women have often looked back at those times through very different prisms, so different and so riddled with conflicting viewpoints that the sheer reconciling power of this remarkable platform of shared memory was overlooked and neglected.

"This exhibition is part of that platform—a place to stand together in shared respect and a place to help us grow in understanding of those difficult times. Here, in recalling these battles of Guillemont and Ginchy where the 16th Irish division fought so bravely in the most outrageous conditions, we recall the courage and generosity of so many young Irish men, from every background and belief, from Antrim to Cork, whose sacrifice forged our shared history, our shared memory. They showed us that there is no contradiction between working together collegially, in friendship and good neighbourliness on missions of common concern and interest while continuing to hold differing views and identities…

"Back in June on the 90th anniversary of the battle of Messines Ridge, in the company of Mr. Edwin Poots, the Northern Minister for Culture Arts and Leisure, I visited for the third time the Irish Peace Park at Messines in Belgium. The Park was opened a few years ago by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, His Majesty King Albert and myself, to honour the memory of the men of the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division who fought shoulder to shoulder at Messines and Wijschaete in a cause they saw as bigger than themselves and their divisions. Those who worked so hard to create that memorial knew that this troubled and conflict-ridden generation needed to be reintroduced to the voices of those who fell at Guillemont, at Ginchy, at Messines and Wijschaete because their voices would exhort us to use our best endeavours to build the peace, the reconciliation, the better world that they dared to dream of…

"The First Minister has long had an association with this Museum and with championing the memory of those who fought and died at the Somme and other battlefields of the Great War. It is an interest we have in common and I am sure he shares my great satisfaction that over recent years more and more people have found it possible to acknowledge the full reality of what happened and to take pride in the comradeship and courage of the men of the 16th Irish and the 36th Ulster Divisions. And in so doing, we have taken those tragic memories, those names of grandfathers and fathers, brothers and uncles, husbands and sweethearts out of the shoe-boxes in the attic where they had lain in restless uncertainty for decades. We have restored them to the light of respect and of pride so that they have become a powerful, recovered, shared memory and indeed a wonderful healing.

"First Minister, I congratulate you and the Deputy First Minister and all your colleagues in the Executive for the tremendous start you have made on your journey of partnership towards a new society in Northern Ireland and a new mood of good neighbourliness across this island.

"There could be no better monument to the brave men of Guillemont and Ginchy."

In last month's article I defined Hibernianism as a movement that Joe Devlin organised "to be the moral fibre and the backbone of Redmondism". I really should have pointed out that historically the AOH and its Grand Master are most conspicuous for their role as British Army recruiters of Northern Nationalists for the killing fields of France and the Middle East. James Connolly had the measure of that Grand Master of a man and his AOH, as evidence of which please do read his article from 1916 which is reprinted in the Autumn issue of Church & State.

So until someone comes up with a better name for that press gang trade I can only say that Hibernianism is alive and well and living in Aras an Uachtaran.

Alive and well? Okay, not so well. Alive and kicking anyway. And kicking over the traces.

Our President, God Bless Her, did not point out that the 36th Ulster Division was the Ulster Volunteer Force, organised in its old companies under its old NCO's and Officers, fighting under its own banners. Carson demanded those rights for his men and he got them. Redmond demanded the same for his Volunteers and was dismissed with all the unconcern he merited. The 16th Irish Division was a collection of old Irish regiments with Redmond's National Volunteers scattered among them, fighting under English banners.

Nor did our President, God Bless Her, point out that the Ulster Volunteer Force and the National Volunteers, whom British strategy had brought together for the moment (and such a moment it was) on the Somme, were each of them preparing to slaughter the other on the Four Green Fields of Home. The Green Fields of France were just a training ground for the fight that Redmond and Devlin, Carson and Craig were determined should follow directly upon the end of the Great Warm Up. Let any who doubts that read Pat Walsh's fine book on Irish Imperialism where he quotes Redmond's deputy John Dillon MP addressing the National Volunteers in Belfast in March 1915:

"…when the war is over, and when we shall commence to resume the thread of Irish politics, that section of the Irish nation which has done best on the battlefields of France, will be the strongest in the struggle which may then be thrust upon us."

Dillon succeeded dead John Redmond as head of the Irish Parliamentary Party just in time for its destruction (in the South) at the hands of Sinn Féin in 1918.

As far as Our President, God Bless Her, is concerned the momentary alignment of imperial forces was "part of the heroic struggle of the Battle of the Somme". Heroic struggle indeed. Murderous slaughter more like!

England did not embark on the first of its twentieth century world wars for—as Our President, God Bless Her, put it—peace, reconciliation and a better world. Germany was England's major economic rival and had therefore to be destroyed. The multi-national Austro-Hungarian Empire was, at least on its Austrian wing, a force for peace and stability in central Europe which had to be destroyed to unleash the chaos on which England has always thrived. The multi-national Turkish Empire was a force for peace and stability in the Middle East which had to be destroyed to unleash the chaos on which England has always thrived. And that is what the Great War was about, chaos, destruction and the enrichment and expansion of the British Empire. Oh to be heroic in such a cause! No thanks, I'm happy enough being abusive in opposition to such a cause.

And thinking on it, if a term is accurate is it then proper to label it abusive? Answers on a postcard please to the critics group, present address unknown (no such number, no such zone).

Finally on this I think it is appallingly ill-mannered of our Head of State, God Bless Her nonetheless, to mention the Somme without mentioning the victims of our coming together in courage and friendliness for a great cause and so on. I refer of course to the Germans we all killed and maimed in our glorious communal sacrifices (the Protestant and the Catholic communal sacrifices) of 1916. Fair enough, a lot of us were killed but we took very many young Germans with us who had never done us a pick of harm and intended Ireland still no harm in those days and weeks and all we spent butchering them. Don't they deserve some mention, a word of apology perhaps? Our President, God Bless Her even so, must hope no one passes a copy of her lack of diplomacy on to the German embassy. But then no one would be so tactless, would they?

Moving on then to the strange case of de Valera. My berating of de Valera has been criticised as follows:

"A couple of questions about JK's What is to be done

"JK says that De Valera was correct to choose independence from Britain for the 26-counties over a united Ireland, but then proceeds to berate him for

"(1) not organising Fianna Fail in the North, and

"(2) not stating publicly that he had chosen independence over a united Ireland and put a united Ireland on the long finger

"Surely, not organising Fianna Fail in the North was all of a piece with choosing independence over a united Ireland—organising in the North would have been a statement that Ireland was a single polity and therefore should be united forthwith.

"As for not stating publicly that a united Ireland was on the long finger, surely it was impossible for any Catholic nationalist politician in De Valera's day to adopt a public position of abandoning part of the nation.

"And if he had adopted such a position, it would have left Northern Catholics with no option but to settle for a life in the UK—in other words, the fate that JK (rightly) fears that Sinn Fein are going to lead Northern Catholics into today would have been forced upon them much earlier."

What I berated de Valera for was his role in breaking the national polity which existed in Ireland prior to, and to a lesser extent after, the second Dáil's reluctant and half-hearted acquiescence in England's Articles of Agreement (the 'Treaty'). I won't now repeat the details of how he did that. I also stated that I found the ruthless hypocrisy of de Valera's machinations disgusting, and spoke of his 50 year career of hypocrisy and dissimulation. Looking back on the article I think I am probably guilty of having understated the case.

Just how my de Valerite critic knows what would have happened if Dev had behaved other than he did is entirely beyond me. We can only know what did happen as a result of the ways in which he did in fact behave. That was a complete moral collapse of the state he built in his own image. Does my critic want me to deny the collapse? Or praise the politics that led to the collapse? Or what?

The way in which de Valera conducted his politics was convoluted and secretive. It was hypocritical in the strict sense of that term, having a public face which utterly belied the private truths of the matter. It was ruthless in slaughtering the political innocents (like Charlie Kerins) who took the public face at face value and acted on it. And it had consequences. De Valera's way of doing politics left his successors with a glaring contradiction that simply could not be resolved. We want to extend our independent Republic to 32 counties, but if we do that it will cease to be an independent Republic. When that contradiction exploded into daily politics in 1969 de Valera's state and de Valera's party collapsed in a heap. The politics of the Republic have gone on, this way and that, since then. We've had the development of a murderous drug-fuelled gang culture. We've had a Celtic Tiger. And de Valera's state and de Valera's party are still lying in a heap.

I don't pretend to know how Irish politics might stand now if they had developed differently than they did from the War of Independence on. I am well aware that such things are simply unknowable. Just let me say this.

Of course it was "impossible for any Catholic nationalist politician in De Valera's day to adopt a public position of abandoning part of the nation". But the corollary of that is that it was entirely possible for de Valera to have adopted a public (and even a private) position of not abandoning part of the nation. And I see no reason why he could not have done that by giving a political voice to that part of the nation which he in fact had abandoned.

Why could de Valera not have organised Fianna Fáil in Northern Ireland, especially after the Republic was formally established in 1948? Such a thing would not have been an act of war. He could easily have continued to insist that there could be no military solution to partition. Fianna Fáil in the North would have been an abstentionist party, and perhaps Northern Nationalists would have preferred to vote for the candidates of some other party that would have taken seats in Stormont and Westminster. Northern politics would have been enormously complicated in the event. Could that really have been a bad thing?

Organising Fianna Fáil in the North might have led to some form of representation for Northern Nationalists in Dáil Éireann, or it might not. I don't know. I only know that there is no necessary reason for it to have led to the anti-partitionist war which my de Valerite critic takes for granted. And I am positive that the 1969 collapse of party and state would thereby have been avoided. But maybe not. Maybe the worst would have happened regardless. But face it, in the real world in which de Valera acted just as he did, the worst did happen!

To Be Continued

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