From Church & State: Autumn 2006

Ireland In 1921: Dr. Fitzpatrick Puts Mr. Bury's Foot In It

Robin Bury is a propagandist of the 'Reform Society'. The Reform Society, which has the British Ambassador in the Republic as a patron, is a front organisation of the Orange Order. The central point in its propaganda is that there was ethnic cleansing of Protestants in the South of Ireland during the War of Independence and its aftermath. The Irish News (Belfast) published a letter from Bury on July 15th. It includes the following paragraph:

"Here is what the Presbyterian journal, The Witness, reported on June 17, 1921: 'The plight of Protestants in the south and the west, (the 26 counties) is sad in the extreme. They are marked; they are watched; they are raided; some of them have been dragged out and shot like beasts; an air of suspicion and dread is about them day and night. The small Protestant minority is at the mercy of local bands of lawless men who have learnt the use of the revolver for obtaining the property of others which they covet. The small Protestant communities in the towns and the isolated Protestant farmers whose industry and character have developed comparative prosperity are considered "fair game" to cover sheer covetousness and personal dislike'."

Mr. Bury acknowledges "the help of Dr David Fitzpatrick of Trinity College, Dublin" in compiling his letter. Perhaps Professor Fitzpatrick provided him with the extract which he has quoted and he is unaware that the Editorial of The Witness makes a very different case indeed.

The Reform Society asserts that Protestants were targeted by the IRA because they were Protestants and not because of anything they did in the War, and that action against them was therefore purely sectarian. The Witness says something quite different: that because they were Protestants they were impelled by their belief to act against the Republic in defence of the British Empire in Ireland.

Its Editorial, The State Of The Country, begins as follows:

"The Honourable H.M. Pollock,D.L., M.P., the Minister of Finance in the Northern Parliament, presented the Report on the State Of The Country in the General Assembly last Friday, and called attention to certain deplorable facts of which we are all more or less cognisant."

This is interesting in itself. A Minister of the newly established Government of Northern Ireland reports to the governing body of a Church on the state of the country. Now, if a Sinn Fein Minister of the elected Government of the Republic had reported to the Catholic Hierarchy at Maynooth—— but let that hare sit.

The Editorial continues (and we have underlined the part quoted by Mr. Bury).

"He referred in particular to the sufferings and persecution of Protestants, which undeniably form a part of the Sinn Fein policy of vengeance upon those who in any way stand opposed to this crusade of wickedness and wish to see the law of civilised society prevail. The Sinn Feiners, of course, deny that Protestants as such are persecuted, and there is an amount of truth in their contention, for their vengeance falls upon all who hinder them without regard to creed or class. But it is easy to see that this does not invalidate Mr. Pollock's assertion of the persecution of Protestants, for Protestants are loyal and law-abiding, and feel it as a duty which they owe to God and their own conscience to support the forces of the Crown in the repression of crime. There is no blinking the fact that this is the line which divides Roman Catholics and Protestants in general at the present time in Ireland. The vast majority of Sinn Feiners are Roman Catholics, and while there must be many Roman Catholics who hate and disapprove of the evil deeds of Sinn Fein, yet the Roman Catholic population as a whole have provided Sinn Fein with a sphere of influence and moral, or rather we should say, immoral, support which render their foul work in Ireland possible. Protestants, on the other hand, are the bulwark of liberty and justice and the due administration of law, and it is only natural that Sinn Feiners should look upon them as enemies and wreak their anger upon them. Sinn Feiners may say that they do it, not because they are Protestants, but because they betray their cause; yet since Protestants cannot do otherwise in virtue of their religion, it comes to the same thing whether we say Protestants are persecuted for their religion, or are persecuted because they will not fall into line with Sinn Fein. Mr. Pollock is, therefore, perfectly right when he calls attention to the persecution of Protestants and evokes the sympathy of the Church in their behalf. The plight of Protestants in the south and the west, (the 26 counties) is sad in the extreme. They are marked; they are watched; they are raided; some of them have been dragged out and shot like beasts; an air of suspicion and dread is about them day and night. The Government has failed in its first duty of bringing criminals to justice and of protecting the innocent. The resolutions which were passed in connection with the Report are entirely in season, one of which is: 'The Assembly would strongly urge upon the Government the solemn obligation of taking whatever steps may be necessary to protect the lives and property of all citizens irrespective of creed or class'. If the Government had done this, its duty from the beginning, things would never have come to be as they are. There can be no settlement of Irish affairs till this is done by some Government, cost what it will. The Liberal party under the regime of Mr. Asquith and Mr. Birrell poisoned the fountain of Government in Ireland for years by what they did, and more by what they left undone. They ruled by sentiment, by opportunism, by stroking the tiger and calling him 'poor puss', thinking that would change his nature. They had little else but corn for the loyal subjects of the King, and little else but praise for his enemies. Have they changed? Have they not aided and abetted Sinn Fein in all its criminal extravagances? Have they not strengthened the unrest by putting ten words of blame upon those who were tracking down criminals for every one they applied to the criminals themselves. It is not our purpose to defend the crimes of the Black and Tans, or any other servants of the Crown, but to fail to recognise that the anterior guilt is in the Sinn Fein conspiracy with which these men are beset is unpardonable. Even to this day the policy of the Liberal party has no other meaning for the Sinn Feiners than 'go and win'. One of the bright particular stars of this school, Lord Buckmaster, speaking at Oxford the other day, constituted himself not only the apologist, but the unblushing champion of Sinn Fein. His words are amazing to read, and we trust our readers will read them. They help us to understand how Sinn Fein has been able to grow up and wax strong in our midst. He said—'Sinn Fein as a political faith was a thing of which no one need be ashamed, and the cruel deeds by which that cause had been stained did not touch the heart of the faith'. He distinguished between Sinn Fein and its cruel deeds, and justifies the one while professing to condemn the other. The distinction has no existence, except in his hair-splitting imagination. Sinn Fein and the cruel deeds are the same. Sinn Fein is the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Sinn Fein is the gunmen. Sinn Fein is crime and violence and terror. There is not a child in Ireland but knows this. Sinn Fein has passed far beyond its sentimental infancy, and is now a diabolic agency, out to destroy the British Isles and the British Empire. How is it that Lord Buckmaster cannot see that it is only the loyal and law-abiding people of Ireland, who can save the situation? What is wrong with his eyes if he cannot see that Sinn Fein is something to be ashamed of? Is it no shame to men when they make murder their work. If decent men are not ashamed of Sinn Fein, let us begin at once and canonise all the criminals of history for they never thought or wrought worse than this. If the true character of Sinn Fein is not recognised at the present time, it is not because Sinn Feiners are not taking all possible pains to make it known…"

The Editorial makes no reference to the fact that Sinn Fein was acting on the authority of a General Election victory in 1918.

By June 1921 Sinn Fein had in fact two electoral victories under its belt. The second, in 1921, was more sweeping than the first. The Home Rule Party had contested most seats in 1918, but had lost all but a handful. But the 1918 Election was held on the British system of 'first past the post', under which the winner usually gains a number of seats out of all proportion to his percentage of the vote. But the 1921 Election was not a British Election. It was an Irish Election, held under a system specially designed by Westminster to weaken Sinn Fein—Proportional Representation. And yet the Sinn Fein victory in 1921 was greater than in 1918.

1918 might be described as a landslide of the ordinary British kind. But 1921 expressed a sea change. In consequence of the 1918 Election the Home Rule electorate of that year became Republican. The difference between a Home Ruler and a Republican in 1918 was not a difference of ideal or principle. The Home Rule leadership itself had never in any previous General Election presented Home Rule as being preferable in principle to a Republic. It had said that Britain would only allow Ireland to set up an independent Government if Ireland had defeated it in war and, since Ireland could not muster sufficient force to defeat the British Empire at war, the best thing to do was to demand no more than Britain might possibly agree to.

That was the Home Rule position in the previous election, in 1910. And Redmond himself had often expressed it.

Voting for one's second preference was habitual prior to 1914. (Only Cork had kicked the habit, rejecting the Home Rule candidates in 1910.)

A habit may become so ingrained that it acquires the virtual status of a principle. Perhaps in the course of a further generation the will would have been hammered flat by the influence of practical reason and would have become incapable of desiring anything else than Imperial Home Rule—an acknowledged and organised Irish presence in the counsels of the Empire.

But the habit was broken by Britain itself—or by the British themselves. It began with the Ulster Is British rebellion against the Home Rule Bill and continued with the reckless Home Rule lurch into British Imperialist militarism in the Autumn of 1914.

The Russian biologist, Lysenko, had a phrase, "shattering the heredity". Maybe it didn't apply to wheat—at least not in the way he thought—but it certainly applies to states.

Look at Iraq. It had acquired considerably stability as a Baath nationalist state. The Shia had on the whole become Iraqis and played their part in the long war against the Islamic Republic. And life for the great majority of citizens had become a routine patterned on the bourgeois liberalism of the West. Then Ameranglia comes along with overwhelming force and destroys the framework of state within which this normality was developed—and people began doing things which a short while earlier they would have found inconceivable.

(Afghanistan appears to contradict this principle. Though subjected to the same kind of "shock and awe" as Iraq, it has been largely unaffected by it. But the reason for that lies in its refusal to become a state.)

The heredity of the Northern Ireland Catholics, their reflex of resigned subordination, was shattered by the assault on them by the forces of the state in August 1969, and they would never again live in sullen quiescence as they had done for two generations.

And so it was with Irish nationalism after 1914. The Home Rule to which it had resigned itself was snatched away, and it was precipitated into militarist activity for a declared purpose which was refused at home [the rights of small nations]. Life could never be the same again for it. The elements of its being were thrown into violent motion. The kaleidoscope had been shaken (to use a favourite image of the warmongering Prime Minister of our own time) and God only knew how the pieces would fall to rest again.

Elections were suspended for the duration of the war. That was OK in England, which was engaged in its primary business and wanted no political interruptions of it.

But Irish civil society was not accustomed to warfare. It had been thoroughly pacified by the Williamite conquest and the Penal system that followed. It had been unable to rouse itself out of its intimidated lethargy in the face of extreme provocation by the Orange regime in 1797-8, or even by the Great Famine. But what it had been unable to do for itself, the Ulsterish rebellion and the British State did for it in 1914.

The 'respectable' classes cannot go to war for the first time and remain just as they were before.

The Home Rule Party decided to go to war, and to recruit nationalist Ireland into the British war effort. And it had considerable success in arousing popular enthusiasm for the War. But it acted very imprudently in going along with the suspension of elections.

In late September 1914 John Redmond did something for which he had no semblance of an electoral mandate. British parties do not need a particular mandate for war. War has been taken for granted there as part of normal political life ever since the time of Algernon Sidney, prophet and martyr of the Glorious Revolution, who proclaimed that the business of England was the combined activities of war and trade, and that attack was the best form of defence. But it would have been prudent for the Home Rule Party to implicate the electorate in its militarism by seeking a mandate. It might have done this by resigning its seats and re-fighting them in by-elections (which continued to be held during the War). Those by-elections would have amounted to an Irish General Election. And, when the idealistic blood was up in the Autumn of 1914, the electorate would probably have voted for war.

We have seen it said that that electorate supported Home Rule participation in the War by responding enthusiastically to the war speeches and by enlisting. But to cheer a war speech is not the same thing as voting for war. It is by voting that a body politic expresses its will. In its response to demagogic speeches it is only a mob.

Pearse said that the history of 19th century Ireland might be summed up as the efforts of a mob to realise itself as a nation. O'Connell's achievement was to create a mob and seed it with expectation. In 1913, when Pearse said those words, it appeared that Ireland was about to become one of the willing nations of the British Empire. A Home Rule appeal to the electorate a year later might well have consolidated it in that position.

It is by voting that an electorate commits itself. It has a stake in what it has voted for. In its emotional response to demagoguery it is only a populace, and its will remains uncommitted.

The Irish electorate, heredity shattered by the events of 1914, remained free, uncommitted, unbound by itself, during the next four years while other shattering events were happening. When eventually required in December 1918 to express its will as an electorate, to settle itself down into something definite, it did so in a way that was beyond its wildest imaginings at the previous election in 1910.

It did so by majority determination in the first instance. But the minority that was still in the grip of the Home Rule habit in December 1918, quickly discarded that habit in the course of the following year, and a settled Republican body politic came into being.

Republicanism, which had been too daring to have any presence in the 1910 Elections, was established as the conservative position of Irish political life in 1918-19. The terrorist campaign of the British Government only toughened it, and it survived even the disruption of the Treaty War.

The Witness makes no reference to the 1918 Election or what it signified. Its implicit position is that the British Government should never have allow Republicanised Sinn Fein to become the dominant electoral force in Irish political life, and that, since that should not have been allowed to happen, it should be treated as not having happened. Although Sinn Fein had won every democratic constituency in the 26 Counties in the election of 1921, and no Home Rule, or British, candidate had been fielded against it, it should still be treated as a criminal conspiracy.

It might have been argued in 1919 that Ulster Unionists who supported British military rule in Ireland, against the electorally expressed will of the Irish democracy, did so in defence of themselves. But that can no longer be argued in June 1921, after the country is Partitioned, and the Unionist Council given a Government of its own, and the 33% Catholic minority placed under that Government is being lashed into quiescence.

The Unionist position on Irish affairs becomes strictly anti-democratic and Imperialist at this point. There was no electoral opposition to Sinn Fein within the democracy of the 26 Counties, but it must be put down, "cost what it may", because it is "a diabolic agency, out to destroy the British Isles and the British Empire".

And how might Sinn Fein Government in the 26 Counties "destroy the British Empire"? By seceding from it. It did not have the power to go on the offensive against it. It was barely holding its own against a minimal exertion of British military power at home.

Ulster Unionism, which had just been constituted into a governing power by the Parliament against which it had rebelled seven years earlier, did not address the problem of how to make its authority tolerable to the 33% of the population that could play no part in its governing system, which was organically connected with the Orange Order. But the meeting of the Presbyterian General Assembly did not address that problem at all—or it saw it as being resolved as a by-product of the crushing of Sinn Fein government in the 26 Counties.

The Witness, as the title suggests, was an earnest religious publication, and therefore a strange source of truth for a present-day propaganda group in Dublin, which purports to be engaged in a liberal critique of the 26 County State. It was gauche of the Reform Society not to have used a liberal source from which it might have got the same message. We suppose the reason is that the inner life of Protestant Ulster is terra incognita for Southern Protestant Unionists no less than for the rest of Southern society.

The Northern Whig (which ceased publication shortly before Ulster Unionism went berserk in 1969) was the organ of political liberalism in the North. It was founded in the 1820s by a printer who had served a kind of political apprenticeship with William Drennan and other survivors of the United Irish movement in the early decades of the 19th century. But, by 1921, it was scarcely distinguishable from the Tory press or the fundamentalist Protestant press:

"Sinn Fein in its present form is much more than a rebel movement, a manifestation of discontent. It has become a deadly moral pestilence. A large proportion of the people have come under the influence of the corrupting miasma which emanates from it.

"Those professional slaughterers, the gunmen, seem to take a ghastly delight in their hideous work. In this they resemble Carrier of Nantes, Joseph Lebron, and other depraved monsters who won infamous notoriety by their atrocious cruelties during the Reign of Terror in France. British advocates of a policy of pusillanimity in Ireland tell us that 'there is no murder gang'—because the agents of Sinn Fein, who number defenceless women, feeble old men, and bedridden hospital patients among their victims, and never b any chance encounter military and police on equal terms, have persuaded themselves that to compass the deaths of their fellow-creatures by violence is not sin… What, rightly considered, is the strongest possible evidence of the demoralisation wrought by Sinn Fein is actively pleaded in extenuation of its guilt! Sinn Fein has deliberately debased the moral currency; has been the means of making thousands of Irishmen, and, alas, Irishwomen also, think of homicide as lightly as it is regarded by the head-hunters of the Solomon Islands or the Congo cannibals. And we are told… that this abysmal lowering of conduct… is to be allowed to rank as a valid defence against indictments for murder! No more damnable doctrine has been preached since the days when the European religious wars were at their height, and monarchs who embraced the cause of a purified faith and an open Bible, like Elizabeth of England and William the Silent went in mortal danger from fanatics and hired assassins" (Northern Whig, 13 June 1921).

Readers not be entirely familiar with the "Carrier of Nantes". He constructed barges with false bottoms, filled them with Catholic royalists, sent the barges into the middle of the Loire and opened the bottoms. Presbyterian Belfast was not shocked by that in the early 1790s, when it counted. But, a century and a quarter later, that drastic Jacobin way of dealing with Papists was somehow felt to be an appropriate comparison for whatever small degree of pressure Sinn Fein applied in the South against Protestants who defied the democracy and acted with the military regime.

There was an odd-man-out at the Presbyterian General Assembly:

"Rev. J.B. Armour said for 29 years he had taken a certain stand, and he believed if the General Assembly had taken his advice the country would not be troubled with Sinn Fein as it was at the present time. He could not see that the Northern Parliament would be successful. If it was successful he would be as pleased as anyone… He would like to see Belfast keeping its position as the first city in Ireland, and one of the first in the Empire; but he did not see how it could if things went on in that way. He objected to the new Parliament on the ground that they were cutting off three or four hundred thousand people of the same creed and faith, and those people were very much disgusted with the people of the North for accepting that Parliament. In the Parliament they had forty people who agreed entirely, and there was no Opposition. He would like to know what Parliament it would be where every member had the same opinion on everything. They were handing over their destinies to the landlord Church of Ireland party… He hoped the Ulster Parliament would turn out well; but he was afraid what Grattan said about the Irish Parliament would probably be true— 'I have watched by its cradle, and I have followed its hearse.' Sir James Craig deserved better than to be a wet nurse for that kind of Parliament and in his opinion Sir James would be glad to see the hearse arriving" (report in The Witness 17 June 1921).

The Moderator said that Rev. Armour would always enjoy the respect of the Assembly, regardless of his opinions, but if he lived to follow the Parliament to its grave "he would be a very old man".

In the event it lasted for 50 years. And it lasted that long because Craig, who had voted against its establishment, minimised political activity in it, as did his successor (after the Andrews hiatus), Basil Brooke. When Captain O'Neill replaced Brookeborough and took it for real, and Lemass browbeat the Nationalists into pretending that it was the democratic legislature of a state, it blew apart within a few years.

It took no great acumen on the part of anybody who was reasonably well-informed about the preconditions of functional politics and who was not absorbed in the waging of religious war, to see things as Armour saw them.

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