From Irish Political Review: January 2006

Northern Nationalists In The Dáil: Under-Represented, Mis-Represented, Un-Represented

Part One: De Valera & Partition

The October 2005 editorial, A Visionary Republican?, was for the most part as clear and incisive as ever. One paragraph however is dull as ditchwater and clear as mud. And a big red herring is floundering about in the mud. This is the paragraph I'm referring to:

"We…tried to get the 6 counties incorporated into the democratic structures of the state which held them. Dev did not do that. But, only on the basis of an excessive rationalism, beyond the scope of practical politics, could he be criticised for not doing so. Statesmen cannot rise above the interests of the states which they lead. They are tied to their states, whatever altruistic postures it might be fashionable for them to strike. They either serve their states well or badly. It is hardly conceivable that Dev did not see that the 6 counties might have been governed in a way that did not generate communal antagonism as a matter of course, but it would {sic} not his business to urge that they should be integrated politically into the British state. And, if he had done so, his proposal would have been rejected by all parties in the 26 country state, without being heeded by Britain, which had set up that atrocious system in the North for an ulterior purpose, and not because it did not know what it was doing. Dev concentrated on the affairs of the State of which he was leader, and he achieved its independence."

I've seen and heard de Valera criticised for many things, but never before for failing to advocate the political integration of Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom. Its the one charge against which there seems little if any need to develop a defence for him. But here for perhaps the first time, is the charge, no sooner stated than rebutted. It was, as the defence so eloquently argued, none of his business. So, no doubt about it, Eamon de Valera Is Innocent, OK.

But there is another, formally very similar, charge which has been laid at de Valera's door and which has never adequately been answered, about a matter which certainly was his business. De Valera did nothing to accommodate the Northern nationalist minority within the political structures of the developing Southern state. More than that he actively connived at their exclusion from those democratic structures.

The Northern Ireland Parliament was opened by King George VI on 22nd. June 1921. Soon after, on June 24th, Lloyd George wrote to de Valera inviting him, "with Sir James Craig, the Premier of Northern Ireland", to a conference in London "to explore to the utmost the possibility of a settlement".

De Valera accepted, in a letter dated 8th. July 1921 (Craig refused the invitation). A truce was immediately declared to begin at noon on July 11th. Lloyd George and de Valera then met in London on July 14th, 15th, 18th, and 21st.

On July 20th, Lloyd George sent de Valera a document containing "the proposals of the British Government" which included the following conditions in respect of partition:

"The form in which the settlement is to take effect will depend upon Ireland herself. It must allow for full recognition of the existing powers and privileges of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, which cannot be abrogated except by their own consent. For their part, the British Government entertain an earnest hope that the necessity of harmonious co-operation amongst Irishmen of all classes and creeds will be recognised throughout Ireland, and they will welcome the day when by those means unity is achieved. But no such common action can be secured by force…

"The British Government will therefore leave Irishmen themselves to determine by negotiations between themselves whether the new powers which the Pact defines shall be taken over by Ireland as a whole and administered by a single Irish body, or be taken over separately by Southern and Northern Ireland, with or without a joint authority to harmonise their common interests. They will willingly assist in the negotiation of such a settlement, if Irishmen should so desire."

De Valera's reply "…on behalf of the ministry of Dáil Éireann" was delivered to Downing Street on 10th. August 1921. With regard to the Partition conditions this stated:

"As regards the question at issue between the political minority and the great majority of the Irish people, that must remain a question for the Irish people themselves to settle. We cannot admit the right of the British Government to mutilate our country, either in its own interest or at the call of any section of our population. We do not contemplate the use of force. If your Government stands aside, we can effect a complete reconciliation. We agree with you 'that no common action can be secured by force.' Our regret is that this wise and true principle which your Government prescribes to us for the settlement of our local problem it seems unwilling to apply consistently to the fundamental problem of the relations between our island and yours. The principle we rely on in the one case we are ready to apply in the other, but should this principle not yield an immediate settlement we are willing that this question too be submitted to external arbitration."

Just over a week later, on August 22nd, those same proposals were debated in a secret session of the Dáil and the Ministry's judgement and its actions were endorsed unanimously.

The view of those engagements which de Valera wished to commend to posterity is certainly that reported in the bible of Fianna Fáil orthodoxy, Dorothy Macardle's The Irish Republic, which I have followed so far:

"De Valéra returned with his colleagues to Ireland. The proposals, forwarded to him in Dublin, were discussed by the Republican Ministry at a full meeting. They were rejected, with varying degrees of disfavour. The majority were confident that Dáil Éireann, when it met in August would endorse the rejection unanimously. Even without the other restrictions proposed on Irish independence the British insistence on giving the Belfast Parliament power to partition Ireland was enough to render these proposals utterly unacceptable" (Corgi edition, 1968, page 445).

But, in fact, De Valera had not indicated to the British Government that its "insistence on giving the Belfast Parliament power to partition Ireland was enough to render these proposals utterly unacceptable". The truth of the matter was a good deal more ambivalent.

On July 21st. Lloyd George had written to the King describing de Valera's attitude to partition as this was outlined in their talks. According to Lloyd George, de Valera was willing to accept…

"…the status of a dominion sans phrase on condition that Northern Ireland would agree to be represented within the all-Ireland parliament. Otherwise, de Valera insisted that the only alternative was for the twenty-six counties to be a republic" (quoted in T. Ryle Dwyer, Eamon De Valera, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin 1980, 1988, page 43).

That he was prepared to use Irish acceptance of the fact of partition as a bargaining counter in a strategy to achieve Republican status for the remaining 26 counties was confirmed by de Valera in the secret Dáil session of August 22nd, during this exchange between himself and Deputy J.J. Walsh:

"Deputy J.J. Walsh asked if they understood that under no circumstances were they prepared to give any sanction to dual nationality in this country.

"An Tuachtarán replied as far as dual nationality was concerned, they never recognised it, but that fact would not prevent the British government from establishing it. For his part, if the Republic were recognised, he would be in favour of giving each county power to vote itself out of the Republic if it so wished. Otherwise they would be compelled to use force.

"Deputy J.J. Walsh said he disagreed with that policy and he would move a motion later on."

In the event Walsh simply seconded a motion moved by Seán T. O'Kelly which entirely endorsed the actions of the President and Ministry.

The main ground of de Valera's acceptance of the inevitability of partition was a clear-headed assessment of the limits placed on Sinn Féin's negotiating position by the very simple and brutal realities of the balance of power between Ireland and England. He had no illusions about England's willingness to use its overwhelming strength against the independence movement. In the same debate of August 22nd. de Valera brought deputies slap bang up against the reality of the British dreadnought:

"The new war if it comes would be on a different basis to the one past. It would be taken as a definite attempt at reconquest. There was not a government in the world that would not do something to prevent the falling away of portion of its territory. The governments of the world would realise that and would be very slow to step in. He did not believe he was too pessimistic when he said that England would be given as free a hand to deal with Ireland at the present time as she was given to deal with the Boers in the South African War. Unfortunately they were very far away from living in a world where moral forces counted. But the practical question is at the moment brute force and they should realise that the moment England thought she was in danger of losing Ireland, a thing she considered particularly precious to her, she would face the world's odium to crush Ireland to the earth.

"In the Southern States of America there were many who still held on to the cause of the South and they well remembered Sherman's march. But there was no use facing war again unless they in Ireland were prepared for a Sherman's march. They should not come to a decision without realising what the position was."

The only deputies who seriously addressed the dichotomy raised by their President between a Republican and a United Ireland were Walsh, Alex MacCabe of Sligo, and a Deputy Collivet about whom I know nothing else (not even his Christian name). The force of "Otherwise they would be compelled to use force" was not, as de Valera everywhere and really otherwise recognised, an option.

Seán Milroy, who represented Fermanagh and Tyrone in the second Dáil (the constituency didn't exist in the first Dáil and had been abandoned to Partition before the third poked its head up through the slough of post-Treaty despond) said that talk about the six counties was getting away from the "real business".

Next day, when de Valera presented the Ministry's draft reply to the Dáil, J.J. Walsh said he "was anxious to have the question of Ulster fully discussed and asked for an opportunity to discuss it". The President "said he would try and find an opportunity for it". Somehow or other the opportunity just never arose.

The great majority of Dáil deputies clearly had as little interest as Milroy in getting away from the real business. The North was never the real business. And, given that the six counties were never going to buy into even the milk and water, British in all but name and nativity, kind of unity that the British were prepared to negotiate about with some pretence of seriousness, the North was never even the unreal business.

So, I hope it is clear that I am not condemning de Valera for realistically taking the side of thorough-going republicanism as against an anodyne unity under detailed British supervision. Where I blame him is where he took his stand on an anti-partitionist rhetoric which he knew to be false and used it to stoke up the subjectivity of his drive to build a republican free state. And also used it, with rare skill and imagination, to bludgeon Northern nationalists into a useless sentimentality that just got young republicans killed and imprisoned (by de Valera as much as by the Unionists). I blame him for that. I condemn him on those terms; terms on which, standing to one side of himself as his own better nature, he would have condemned himself.

Returning to de Valera's formulations of his view of the partition question. He stated to Lloyd George that, if the six counties refused to join the other twenty-six in an all-Ireland parliament, the twenty-six would have to constitute themselves as a republic. He told the Dáil that so long as the republic was recognised he would be in favour of giving each county, really just the six usual suspects, the power to vote themselves out of said republic. Either way he was declaring that his republicanism would stop at the border, or rather that it wouldn't stop at joining in creating the border. He was going farther even than Redmond's United Irish League (the Irish Parliamentary Party) was prepared to go in 1914 and 1916.

In March 1914 Redmond swallowed Britain's then "last word" and accepted a form of Home Rule out of which any of the usual suspects could opt for a period of three years. From that point the rate of Northern recruitment into the Irish Volunteers greatly exceeded that of the South. Little realising where Redmond would finally send them to do and die, those Northern Volunteers clearly joined up to fight Ulster exclusion. That is why the Redmondite leadership refused to distribute arms to them. At the start of the Great War Devlin was forced to hand out 800 rifles but, cute hoor that he was, kept back the ammunition. Eamon Phoenix cites G.F.H. Berkeley, Belfast organiser of Redmond's National Volunteers, to this effect on page 18 of Northern Nationalism, adding that the Home Rule leaders wanted the Northern section of their own movement to wither for fear of its reaction to Ulster exclusion. (Redmond was requiring them to fight the recalcitrant Prods when Home Rule had been achieved, but in the meantime was desperate to keep them in line.) He neglects to point out further how his hero Joe Devlin managed to have that threat eradicated on Flanders' fields. Great fella the same wee Joe.

The apparent triumph of Redmondite Home Rulers in the first years of the Great War, sending hundreds of thousands of their supporters to die for King and Empire in France and Gallipoli (the triumphs of Suvla and Sudelbar), should not obscure the fact of their political eclipse in that same period in the west of the fourth green field.

By June 1915 the National Volunteers were finished in County Tyrone, where a Conference at Omagh of senior clergy and nationalist politicians repudiated exclusion and later provided the post-1916 Sinn Féin leadership in the North.

Only days after Redmond accepted the three year exclusion of the Six Counties as Britain's "final word" on the subject, Britain informed him that the period of exclusion had been doubled to six years. After the Rising, on 23rd. June 1916, a Northern Nationalist Conference was held in St. Mary's Hall in Belfast and voted 475 to 265 in favour of a temporary exclusion of the Six Counties which were to continue to be ruled from, with continuing representation in, Westminster. Both Redmond and Devlin had to threaten to resign to get that vote and what they got was a split between Antrim and Down which stood with Devlin, and Tyrone Fermanagh and Derry which were all the more ready to move to Sinn Féin.

A month after that Conference, on 22nd. July, Lloyd George finally informed Redmond that the six counties would be permanently excluded and would have their own parliament with the scale of Irish representation at Westminster being drastically reduced. The spent force that was Redmond pledged to fight that bill to the death.

Redmond corpsed in March 1918. Politically he had been dead since June 1916, and it was his acceptance of Partition and West Ulster's rejection of his acceptance of Partition that killed him.

I assume that de Valera learned the lesson of that and applied his learning in the negotiations with Joe Devlin in advance of the 1921 elections to the Northern Ireland Parliament and the Second Dáil, both of which were held under the auspices of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. The Irish Political Review has previously (September 2004) published the correspondence between Collins and de Valera of January 1921 which examined various strategies for the coming electoral contest in the North. Collins was clear about the need for Sinn Féin to fight both the Unionists and Devlin's Redmondites. De Valera's view was made manifest in his negotiations with Devlin. As I wrote in that earlier article:

"In the event, following a meeting between de Valera and Joe Devlin in February 1921, Sinn Féin and the Hibernians fought the northern elections together, allied on the Sinn Féin programme of self-determination and abstentionism. De Valera did not make attendance at Dáil Éireann for successful candidates a condition of the Pact, and the Hibernians simply stayed at home waiting out their abstentionist pledges.

"Though Sinn Féin secured twice the vote of the Devlinites each party to the Pact won six seats (the Unionists won the remaining 40 of 52). Four of the Sinn Féiners (but none of the Hibernians) were elected on the first count. Those four were de Valera in Down, Collins in Armagh, Griffith in Fermanagh & Tyrone and MacNeill in Derry. The other Shinners elected were Seán Milroy and John O’Mahony in Fermanagh & Tyrone."

Devlin later (in a letter to James Dillon, 22 April 1921) stated that, but for the pact with de Valera, his nationalists would not have won a single seat outside Belfast. I suspect that is exactly how de Valera wanted it. There was only one Northern representative in the second Dáil who owed his membership of the Dáil to his Northern constituency. That was John O'Mahony. All the rest, including the Northerner MacNeill, also represented Southern constituencies. The nationalists ignored the Dáil and the Dáil ignored them, just as it ignored Northern Sinn Féin. The leadership of the Home Rule Party was constantly harassed on Partition by Northern representatives and members who were deeply imbedded in the structures of the party. The Sinn Féin leadership had outmanoeuvred its Northern component onto the sidelines and the outskirts of its political life where it was no more than an occasional nuisance (begging time and again to be consulted about its future, time and again being told to mind its own business). That is what de Valera achieved in 1921. I can't believe it was an accident but rather that it was an element of the Partitionist strategy which he announced later that year, first to the British Prime Minister and then to the Dáil. Sinn Féin had the freedom, which the Home Rulers never had, to ignore Northern nationalism and deliver it into a Partition settlement. That was de Valera's design and achievement.

There is a great deal more to be said on both sides of this question. Most particularly de Valera's attitude(s) to Northern representation in the Free State and Republican Dáils will have to be described in detail. For the moment I'll finish with a few final points about de Valera and partition.

On 26th. January 1939, with a general European war imminent, the Seanad debated a motion in the names of Senators MacDermot and Alton that:

"…the policy of the Government in regard to the question of Partition ought to take more serious account of the sentiments and interests of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland."

The debate ran on over a couple of days with a break in the middle and on the last day (7 February) de Valera descended from the Dáil to deliver a simply stunning forensic analysis of the whole Partition question. It was very impressive, and very partitionist. In the course of it de Valera argued:

"…if force is going to be ruled out and if we have to appeal to common sense and to goodwill, then we have to inform common sense. We have to give the facts. We have to say to the British, as we say to our own people who may not clearly understand it, that there is an injustice at the present time being done to a large section of our people who are entrapped in that territory and held there by force. If we do not make that clear, definitely clear, we are simply sitting down and being content with a position which is a dangerous position that ought not to be allowed to continue one moment longer than it can be helped.

"We have tried to inform British opinion on that particular matter, and we have gone further in so far as by public statement we can do it. We have tried to inform our own people, not merely here, but our own people throughout the world wherever they might be, wherever they have a voice, and wherever they could bring influence to bear, that there is an injustice being done in our country at the present moment, an injustice which, I say, would justify the use of force if it could be effective. I do not want, and I am not advocating, force —I hope that that is clear—because I do not think it would succeed. I do not want it. I do not think it would be right. I think it would embitter relations which were improving. I do not want it, but I do want the injustice to be known all over the world and to be removed. I want to have the Irish people all over the world using whatever influence they have to try to bring Partition to an end. That has been, in the main, the Government policy—to bring that fact home to the British Government, to ask them not to continue doing the things which they are doing in the way of perpetuating this division, for which the Irish people hold them responsible.

"…The Irish people wish the British, if they have no interest in Partition, not to give any active assistance in keeping people out who want to come in. They are keeping people out who want to come in. They are keeping out the people, again I repeat it, of South Down, South Armagh, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Derry, and all that area. There is not the slightest doubt about it that if there were not British military forces in those areas, those people would move to come in with us, and we would certainly take them. Britain, then, cannot wash its hands either of the responsibility for enacting Partition or of the responsibility for keeping it, particularly in its present form.

"…Now, is it only the British who have a responsibility for the continuance of it? I do not want for a moment to say that. Again, if there was not this division here in our midst, the British could not use it. There is, of course, and it is foolish to blind yourself to that, just as it is foolish to blind yourself to the other aspect of it. There are people here with a very different outlook from that of the majority. They occupy a certain area —it is a small area in the country. Their ideals deserve the fullest possible consideration. When we had, as the Government in 1921, responsibilities in that particular matter, we were prepared to go to any distance that was reasonable to give satisfaction to their point of view. When Fianna Fáil became the Government, and we came to frame a Constitution, we kept in mind the possibility of making concessions to those whose outlook on certain matters differed from ours. But we could not proceed along the line that was proposed by Senator MacDermot. A minority has rights; a minority's viewpoint deserves careful consideration. I think that, in so far as it is possible to meet them, an effort to meet them should be made. But, again, I say there are limits to that and that the majority have their rights too.

"For instance, speaking for myself—I am not talking about Government policy in the matter, which has been largely embodied in the Constitution— I would not to-morrow, for the sake of a united Ireland, give up the policy of trying to make this a really Irish Ireland—not by any means. If I were told to-morrow: 'You can have a united Ireland if you give up your idea of restoring the national language to be the spoken language of the majority of the people,' I would, for myself, say no. I do not know how many would agree with me. I would say no, and I would say it for this reason: that I believe that as long as the language remains you have a distinguishing characteristic of nationality which will enable the nation to persist. If you lose the language the danger is that there would be absorption.

"One of the sad things for me all the time is that there has not been a fuller appreciation of that fact amongst the young people of the country. I imagine, if I were a young man, that there is nothing to which I would devote myself so much. I can say this, that, after the Treaty, when Cathal Brugha and I felt that there was an end as far as our efforts for trying to get the freedom we wanted at that particular time were concerned, the two of us came to an agreement that there was only one thing to be done, and that we should do it immediately, and that was, to try to bring about the restoration of the language. I feel that to this day, and I hope that I am right in it
"Certainly I do not think it is a point of view I am going to change. I believe that the restoration of the national language is the surest guarantee that this nation will continue to exist. Much as I would desire to see unity—and I told you it was because of Partition I came into politics—much as I would desire to see that, which, as far as I am concerned, would be the crowning of anything I ever attempted as far as practical political action was concerned, I would not grasp even that at the cost of losing the opportunity of restoring the language. Therefore, I would not pay that price.

"There is another price I would not pay. Suppose we were to get unity in the country provided we were to give up the principles that are here in this first Article of the Constitution— the 'sovereign right of the nation to choose its own form of Government, to determine its relations with other nations, and to develop its life, political, economic, and cultural, in accordance with its own genius and traditions'—I would not sacrifice that right, because without that right you have not freedom at all. Although freedom for a part of this island is not the freedom we want—the freedom we would like to have, this freedom for a portion of it, freedom to develop and to keep the kernel of the Irish nation is something, and something that I would not sacrifice, if by sacrificing it we were to get a united Ireland and that united Ireland was not free to determine its own form of Government, to determine its relations with other countries, and, amongst other things, to determine, for example, whether it would or would not be involved in war. Our people have the same right as any other people to determine these vital matters for themselves and they ought not to surrender them in advance to anybody or for any consideration. Certainly, as far as this Government is concerned, we are not going to surrender that right—for any consideration, even the consideration of a united Ireland."

People who foolishly assume an identity of interest between republican and nationalist ideology and aims should be hit repeatedly over the head with the text of that address which makes it clear that an independent republic could not have been achieved within the thirty-two county state that was the sine qua non of nationalism. De Valera's republicanism was not the extreme uncompromising form of nationalism that the term is inevitably and erroneously taken to represent.

Republicanism and nationalism are political contraries. Or at least they were political contraries until Adams and McGuinness in ending the war fused those irreconcilables. Until recently practical republicanism was practically partitionist. Practical anti-partitionism was practically anti-republican. If you want to understand the political revolution the Provos have been and are now in the process of making first understand that crucial distinction. Most of the rest of current Irish politics, including the deep confusions that essentially define it all, follow from that basic simplicity.

One last plunder of Eamon Phoenix's Northern Nationalism and that's me drained of this for now.

Early in the Second Great War, with nobody in Ireland too impressed with the phoniness of it, a deputation of Northern nationalists, noting that de Valera had claimed a "moral right to speak for all Ireland", went South to seek guidance from himself and Sean T O'Kelly. The deputation included Cahir Healy, Peader Murney and Father Coyle.

The undated minutes of an "interview between An Taoiseach and a northern Nationalist Deputation" record de Valera arguing that "the retention of the 26 county status was considered to be of such value that the loss of it could not be risked in any effort to reintegrate the country…" (quoted in Phoenix, op cit, page 389). Minutes, as anyone who has taken or tried to act on them will know, are rough and ready at best, but that has the ring of truth and chimes in with the de Valera of 22nd. August 1921 and the de Valera of 7th. February 1939. And the de Valera of many times in between when urgent requirements of the moment distracted him from anti-partitionist rhetoric. It is entirely consistent also with de Valera's line after he had indisputably won his Republic and a Fine Gael led administration had at last proclaimed it.

With the Republic firmly and safely established de Valera still wanted the North as far away from him as he could have it and it and him still on the same island. Of which more later.

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