Editorial from Irish Political Review, December 2002

Constitutional Matters

You cannot take a seat in the British Parliament merely by getting elected to it. After you have been elected you have to swear a mediaeval Oath of Allegiance to the Crown. Some Labour MPs say that they swear the Oath with their fingers crossed. In other words, they commit perjury while making a superstitious sign to counter it.

There is not the slightest danger of anybody being prosecuted for perjury for swearing a false Oath of Allegiance. Indeed, readiness to perjure yourself was almost a condition of admission to Parliament during the century or more when the system of government that was called “the Crown in Parliament” was being established. Seats in Parliament were reserved for members of the Church of England for a century and a half after the Glorious Revolution, but little secret was made of the ruling view that the most suitable members of the Legislature were people who did not believe in the doctrines of that Church—only utter fanatics could believe them—but who were willing to go through the form of subscribing to them in order to gain access to the corridors of power. The taking of a false Oath with an easy conscience was taken to be conclusive proof of a healthy scepticism.

The people who imposed the Penal Laws on the Irish Catholics were not themselves believers. They were manipulators of belief. They were backed by the wide stratum of Protestant fanaticism in England, which they took care to exclude from Parliament, and they availed of the known scrupulosity of the Irish Catholics to exclude them from all public life by presenting them with Oaths which they would not take.

The duplicity of “perfidious Albion”—as the French called them—had its source in the fact that Parliament was a perjured body. Once it had systematically broken faith with the God in whom it required others to believe, secular breaches of faith became a matter of course .

In the Irish Republic, which the Northern Assembly’s suspended First Minister declares to be a sectarian state, perjury is not a requirement of entry into the Dail. The matter of Oaths was sorted out in the 1930s by abolishing them. You take your seat in the Dail simply by virtue of being elected to it. The Dail is a strictly democratic assembly, while the House of Commons obviously is not.

Fianna Fail abolished the Parliamentary Oath because of its experience of being excluded by it.

One of the purposes of the 1921 Treaty—dictated by the British Government under threat of massive force—was to extend the perjury system to the new Irish government. The Dail members were elected on a Republican mandate and were pledged by Oath to uphold the Republican Government. A majority of them broke their Oath in order to ward off the kind of war being threatened by Britain—the Concentration Camp system by means of which the Boers had been defeated 20 years earlier. The electorate, acting under the same threat, returned a pro-Treaty majority in 1922—but the electorate was not Oath-bound.

The Free State politicians broke their first Oath in order to take a second. They became the King’s Ministers. Their intention at first was to accept the Treaty in order to break it. But the perjury had its own logic, and they became increasingly attached to Crown and Empire.

But the electorate did not go Imperial with them. After British government fell into confusion in 1923—with the fall of the War Coalition and the onset of weak party Governments—and the danger of British intervention to enforce the Treaty had passed, the electorate voted Republican again.

The Free State Party (called Cumann na nGaedheal then and Fine Gael now) tried to guarantee itself in permanent power by strict application of the Oath to elected candidates. It thereby set itself against the democracy, a fact from which it has never recovered.

The situation in the 26 Counties in the 1920s was rather like the situation in Turkey in recent times—Turkey has a secularist constitution under which the democracy is not allowed to elect an Islamic party to government—with the difference that in the Free State the Constitutional attempt to exclude the democracy from political office was made by means of an Oath.

De Valera in 1925 tried to persuade the Sinn Fein party to take its seats in the Treaty Dail for the purpose of undoing the Treaty Constitution and restoring the Dail to its Republican status. He failed by a few votes. His supporters then withdrew from Sinn Fein and set up Fianna Fail on a republican programme.

Fianna Fail committed the degree of perjury required by the Free State party in order to sit in the Treaty Dail and revoke the Treaty Constitution. It was assisted in this by senior Catholic Churchmen, who reasoned that an imposed Oath which was being used to thwart the democratic development of the state was something less than an Oath. Their good intentions being reinforced by this advice, the Fianna Fail TDs were not tainted by the taking of the false Oath, and they proceeded to reconstruct the Constitution on Republican lines.

What Fianna Fail did with the Treaty was what Michael Collins had expressed the intention of doing after he signed it. A North Cork poet who supported the Treaty wrote a satire on Fianna Fail’s entry into the Treaty Dail, entitled The Oath That Was No Oath At All. Abstracting from time and circumstance, it could be argued that, since the Treaty Oath in 1926 was the same as it had been in 1922, those who took it in 1926 should have taken it in 1922, instead of letting the Treaty Party involve them in a Civil War over it. But an argument about political history which disregards time and circumstance belongs in the kindergarten —or the Oxbridge-supervised Irish Universities.

That Oath was for real in 1922, when the all-conquering War Coalition was still in power. Collins tried to fudge issues during the first six months of 1922, until he was given an ultimatum by Churchill to get on with the Civil War. He broke the Election Pact with the anti-Treatyites in June following a peremptory summons to Whitehall. And he started the shooting in August following another Churchill ultimatum threatening British Army action. The Treatyites acted in response to the touch of the master’s hand in all that they did in 1922. Whitehall ensured that they were all heavily compromised. Realisation of Collins’ scheme to take office under the Treaty on the basis of British authority and seek opportunities at a later time to use that office against the Treaty depended therefore on the large body of Republicans who refused to participate in the Treaty system, and who refused to surrender after they had been beaten to the ground by the mercenary Army of the Free State armed by Britain.

The War Coalition in Britain fell towards the end of 1922, after giving a good start to the Civil War and putting the subordinate Free State system securely in place. The fall was caused by a back-bench tory revolt sparked off by an incident in the Greek invasion of Turkey. Britain had conquered the Middle East from Turkey in four years of warfare, 1914-18. It then set about humiliating the Turks, with worships in the Bosphorous, and the dictation of policy to the Government at Istanbul, and it incited the Greeks to launch a war of conquest against Turkey in Asia Minor. All of this provoked Attaturk’s Republican rebellion, which drove the Greeks into the sea. In the Tory backwoods there had long been a high regard of Turks as gentlemen in a sea of wogs, a gentleman being a kind of well-organised, tenacious and belligerent barbarian. Suspecting that the War Coalition intended to make a heavier commitment to the lost cause of the Greeks, they brought it down.

A weak Tory Government, from which all the Great Men of the War Coalition were missing, was elected in 1923. The Great Men attempted to establish a kind of “national” (i.e. Imperial) politics beyond parties—a movement of the kind which in Italy called itself Fascist—and failed. The outcome was widespread demoralisation of Imperial will, and a generation of foreign policy drift during which a succession of Governments could neither consolidate the expanded Empire of 1918 into a functional system nor set about dissolving the Empire into functional parts. (The only Great War project which Britain carried through in that generation was the flooding of Palestine with Jews for the purpose of establishing a Jewish State against its Arab Allies of 1916-18.)

Party political government limped along until 1931, when a form of National Government was established which lasted until 1945. While this National Government bore a certain resemblance to Fascism, it lacked the vigour of the Fascist Governments on the Continent—the vigour that would have characterised the 1923 attempt of Churchill, Birkenhead, Lloyd George etc. to establish a ruling politics beyond party, if it had come off.

The opportunity to establish the independence of the Free State in defiance of the Treaty came about through demoralisation within British politics. The Treatyites in office were unable to avail of it to carry out Collins’ plans to subvert the Treaty by taking office under it, because they no longer wanted to. It remained for the anti-Treatyites to do it after they got into office by taking “the Oath that was no Oath at all”. When they repealed the Oath without the consent of the British, the Whitehall Dominions Secretary condemned the action but did nothing about it. That was ten years after Whitehall had forced a Civil War in Ireland over it. The Dominions Secretary in that National Government was J.H. Thomas, a former Socialist.

Britain’s inaction in 1932 was moral. That goes without saying. Moral is what Britain does, or does not do. The source of its inaction in 1932 was the internal weakness and confusion that overcame the middle classes when they looked back and reflected on what had happened to them in their Great War on Germany, which was Britain’s first middle-class war. (Their gigantic post-traumatic-stress-disorder had other, and graver, consequences than the slipping away of the Free State, one of which was the Second world War.)

We notice that Denis Kennedy, a fundamentalist Unionist intellectual, and Cadogan Group colleague of David Trimble’s close adviser, Professor Bew, has advertised in the Irish Times for materials relating to Dan Breen, whose biography he is writing. Is this part of Oxford University’s “Re-Writing Irish History” project? The image of Dan Breen as the mindless gunman has been propagated assiduously in recent years. But “Dan Breen’s Book” (as it was invariably known) has a place in world history. It carried the message around the world that the apparently invincible Empire could be hurt. And it was Breen who pioneered the anti-Treaty path into the Treaty Dail for purpose of breaking the Treaty. He took the most difficult step—the first one.

So much by way of comment on the rumour that Provisional Sinn Fein is considering placing itself in a position of allegiance towards the Crown and taking its seats in Westminster. The rumour may be "mischievous" as Martin Mc Guinness said, but we doubt that it is entirely groundless.
The Guardian carried the rumour, that Provisional Republicanism was thinking of doing away with itself, on its front page on 30th November: IRA Ready For Historic Moves To End Crisis. And the article (by Michael White, Political Editor) carried this logically puzzling paragraph:

“Many analysts believe that Sinn Fein may emerge ahead of the SDLP as the main nationalist party and there are similar mainstream fears that Ian Paisley’s DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] might also outvote Mr. Trimble’s UUP [Ulster Unionist Party]”.

Perhaps Mr. White meant to say “mainland”. Trimble’s convoluted Jesuitry long ago ceased to be the mainstream of Unionism. He failed to get a majority even of the 1998 Assemblymen for his re-election as First Minister last year, and Alliance and Women’s Coalition representatives had to declare themselves Unionists to get him back. And the last elections show Sinn Fein as being already the main nationalist party.

Sinn Fein, as the mainstream nationalist party, has begun to do Constitutional things which the SDLP never did during its thirty years of electoral predominance. Not supporting military action is not in itself Constitutional, only pacifist. The SDLP rejected the Constitution in its part of the state, but it opposition was pacifist. The first attempt to draw it into participation in the order of things Constitutionally laid down for Northern Ireland was made in the Summer of 1971. Its response was to withdraw from the Stormont Parliament and set up an Alternative Assembly in Dungannon. Many other refusals of Constitutional participation followed. And it was venomously hostile to our efforts to get the 6 Counties included within the democratic politics of the Constitution. It was a pacifist, not a Constitutional, nationalist party.

We do not recall that it ever took part in the militaristic ceremonies of Empire at the Somme or on Poppy Day as Provisional Sinn Fein has started doing. We did not notice any actual wearing of the Poppy by Sinn Fein. But the things it has been saying suggest that wearing it would be a logical next step.

It is our view that taking the debased Oath at Westminster would be a small thing compared with engaging in the sanctification of Imperialist militarism, which is what Remembrance Day is all about.

Back in 1969, in the era of Wilson and Heath, the view was widespread in Britain that the Imperial era—the era of Britain throwing its weight about around the world—was over, and Britain was becoming a normal European state. And the Cabinet considered abolishing Remembrance. But Mrs. Thatcher changed all of that. Remembrance Day was re-invigorated as a sign of things to come. And the militarist renaissance has continued under Blair.

Insofar as Remembrance Day relates to the past, its purpose is to sanctify all British military actions since 1914. The last official figure we noticed was something over eighty. Nothing is excluded. Not the Concentration Camps and general barbarism in Malaya in the late forties and early fifties. Not the atrocities in Kenya. And not the Black and Tan War.

But the militaristic past is consecrated because the British state has every intention of doing these things again in the future. And these militaristic rituals are close to the heart of the Constitution. Sinn Fein has begun to flirt with them. And it is a certainty that, if it follows through, the SDLP will drop its pacifism and go after.

Tom Hartley, Sinn Fein philosopher, went on a pilgrimage to the Somme with David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party. Hartley said: “The politics of Ireland found its way onto the battlefield of the Somme”. But the way that happened was that John Redmond persuaded the Home Rulers that, if they joined the anti-Home Rulers to go on a German-killing expedition, their conflict with each other would somehow disappear in the process. It didn’t. And there was never any practical possibility that it would.

Ervine said that the Somme “was a legitimate battle”, utterly unlike “the dirty stinking little war” in Ireland. And both joined in a condemnation of Pat Muldowney of Foyle Labour in the Sunday World for suggesting that the Irish war on Germany was a piece of unprovoked aggression, and therefore a war crime.

We will return to this matter in the next issue.

Some time ago (August 1998) we published a long review of a criticism by Martin Mansergh (in the Times Literary Supplement) of a pamphlet by Ruairi O Bradaigh on Tom Maguire, the last survivor of the 1921 Dail. Some paragraphs from it are worth repeating at this juncture:—

Mansergh writes in his concluding paragraph:

“Egon Bahr, architect of the Ostpolitik and adviser to Chancellor Willy Brandt, had an important insight when he said that ‘It is often necessary to recognise realities in order to change them’. The Republican tradition in Ireland, both constitutional and otherwise, is with few exceptions now prepared to act on that basis.”

It is an unfortunate comparison. West Germany founded itself on a claim to be the only legitimate German state. Adenauer categorically denied legitimacy to East Germany. His constitution was not for West Germany. It was for a Federal Republic that, for the time being, was practically confined to the Western occupation zones…

When the Social Democrats eventually came to power in the Federal Republic after the long Christian Democrat era, Willy Brandt rejected the Adenauer stance as futile and launched his Ostpolitik—a movement of rapprochement between the two German states, the Federal Republic and the People’s Republic. Implicit in this was a recognition by the Federal Republic of the legitimacy and sovereignty of the People’s Republic… Legitimacy was accorded to a state which was quite obviously not sovereign. It was a puppet state…

Eventually, however, the Federal Republic did recognise the People’s Republic as a legitimate sovereign state, even though it wasn’t. This wasn’t so much a matter of recognising realities in order to change them, as pretending that an unreality was real.… And, when the change came, it was not through any kind of Ostpolitik, or as a consequence of the legitimation of the unreal. It came through the functioning of the realities on which Adenauer based his position, and which Willy Brandt tried to escape from by make-believe.

In the North the Agreement got its 70% support on the basis of two diametrically opposed interpretations of it. What happens to it will be determined by the conflict of communal forces in which neither Mansergh nor O Bradaigh plays any real part. But if it is the case that the Republicans of the North are playing a kind of Ostpolitik, "recognising realities in order to change them"—in which case, prepare for a bumpy ride!—it will be no disadvantage to them if they feel O Bradaigh, like an Irish Adenauer, breathing down their necks.


Constitutional Matters.

Churchill: The Most Typical Briton?
John Martin
With Some Of Churchill's Positions

Parading Somebody Else's Prejudices.
Sean McGouran

The New Constitution For Europe: Another Letter To Valery
Jack Lane

The Archive
6: Cork Historical Society review of Roy Foster's Parnell

An Cor Tuathail: The Book Of Poland
(Compiled by Pat Muldowney)

Two reviews of "British Intelligence" by Peter Hart:—

(1) British Intelligence On The Irish War Of Independence.
B. Clifford

(2) More Nonsense From Peter Hart.
Jack Lane

Zionism. (Review of John Smith pamphlet).
Sean McGouran

Index For 2002

Athol Books On-Line

European Referendum Result

"Israel Strikes Back"
(Carl Rosenbaum, Report)

LABOUR COMMENT edited by Pat Maloney:—
The Axe To The Rot

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