The piece The Irish in World War One – Forgotten Heroes, was written two years ago, around the time of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, in the summer of 1914. Two years on, I’m still overawed by the the courage of the Irish and others who fought in WWI. However, some of my other views have evolved and developed somewhat. I’m far less angry for example with “Nationalist Ireland”, with its attitudes and understandings now than i was then. On a factual basis I’m also less sure of some of the arguments I put forward in 2014. To be specific, I’m far less convinced now, in mid-2016, that Ireland would have had achieved a satisfactory degree of Independence, in 1919 or 1922 (or any other time in the then-foreseeable future) if the 1916 Easter Rising and the War of Independence had not occurred. I suspect I was wrong on that point, basically. I suppose I was disgusted about a general lack of recognition and respect and commemoration toward Irish servicemen in the British army in WWI, and the way their extraordinary courage and sacrifice had long been ignored (or worse) and this may have clouded my judgement. That particular aspect of commemoration has of course recently improved out of all recognition. Like many of you perhaps, I’m delighted to see yesterday (July 1st, 2016 an Irish president, Michael D Higgins, taking part in the 100-year memorial of the appalling, unimaginable, Battle of the Somme. One can’t quite picture Eamon de Valera taking part, in say 1966. But it is absolutely right that our president was there in 2016. This is real and welcome progress, a sign of he ever-growing maturity of our country.
More generally, my 2014 WWI piece touched on the need, or asked if there was indeed any need, for Irish “advanced-nationalist’ violence in the 1916-1921 period (?) I argued in 2014 that it was possibly not necessary, since by 1914 Home Rule had already been “achieved” I suppose in general my piece, and that position, could be broadly characterized as “Revisionist” (a flawed term, clearly but the handle everyone uses) The great historic question that exercises “Revisionists” (and has exercised me much of my thinking adult life) has been: was the War of Independence really necessary to secure Irish Independence? The piece from 2014 argues that tragically, it was not truly necessary, and we would have soon acheived Independence without the violnce. This is essentially the argument former Irish Taoiseach John Bruton was making 2 years ago (and getting a bruising time for making it, in a country where, inevitably such statements are both highly contentious, and extremely sensitive. As Bruton wrote at the time, John Redmond had already achieved Home Rule in 1913/14. So it seems a slam dunk argument that “the Rising” was both unmerited as well as un-mandated, and like the later War of Independence was tragically unnecessary. That conclusion however, ignores several key points. Firstly, Home Rule was not real or full Independence. It was far less than say, the settlement reached by Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith et al, in London 1921.
Second, the exact terms of Home Rule had still to be fully thrashed out and defined in 1914 when it was conveniently shelved for the duration of WWI. Third, the British Liberal Government under both Herbert Asquith then later David Lloyd George showed little or no appetite for devolving power to Dublin. They regarded the whole “Irish Question” as an irritant and an unwelcome headache. So much so in fact, that many in the British establishment were -incredible as it may now seem- initially relieved when WWI broke out! It gave them an opportunity to shelve the whole issue of Home Rule, which was threatening to create a Civil War in Ireland at the time. I stress initially, obviously such views changed rapidly as the full horror of WWI became apparent. But by that stage Ireland was further disadvantaged, relegated into an irrelevance, as all attention now focused on the European War. In any case, even among the Liberal party, most political sympathy and identification was with Ulster Unionists, not with Constitutional Irish Nationalism. Private letters, cabinet records, transcripts and other historical material clearly illustrate a utter indifference, bordering on contempt, for Irish aspirations, indeed for the Irish, and occasionally even Catholicism. Attitudes among Conservatives were of course, even worse, uniformly Unionist and Imperialist. They did not even pretend to be open-handed or balanced toward democratic Irish aspirations. Overall therefore, attitudes to Home Rules were such that its enactment was going to be slow and begrudging, characterized by meanness, reluctance, foot-dragging and a lack of even-handedness. Once Tories entered the National Coalition War-Time cabinet, things got even worse from an Irish Nationalist point of view. In that light, I’ve concluded after all that the 1916-1921 Revolutionary period therefore, tragically, was necessary to secure an improved- if still incomplete- political settlement for Ireland (in 1921). I am indebted in this respect to many sources and authorities, but most of all to the work of celebrated historian Professor Ronan Fanning (professor emeritus of History, University College Dublin). His book “Fatal Path” takes in a huge volume of evidence. It convincingly marshals that material to probe and examine the period from the point of view of those in power in London. In the end it comes to the conclusion that – left to its own devices- London was never going to give Nationalist Ireland a fair deal. They had to forced basically. In the end, I find the sheer weight of evidence tends to that conclusion. Reluctantly, very reluctantly indeed, I find after all that sometimes “violence works”. I just wish it had not been necessary in order to secure the Independence of my country. But wishful thinking is not a solid basis for historical understandings. Very reluctantly (still) I can now salute those who, in 1916, and indeed in 1919-21, who were clear sighted enough to see that it was necessary.
One thing that has not changed however, and never will, is my immense and equal respect and sympathy for those men and women, Irish, and English, and from every other part of the world, who thought they should and ought to fight in WWI. They sincerely believed that Germany was an aggressive, highly belligerent power that had invaded other European countries, including neutral ones, and needed to be confronted. To blame or condemn them for that, really is to exhibit a “little Irelander” mentality. Having respect for one group of Irish (advanced nationalists) does not preclude respect for another (fighting in WWI). We’re big enough now, surely, to have two sets of heroes.