Monday, 20 April 2015

Myth & Countermyth

Flag of the Irish Republic, GPO, 1916

I like Ruth Dudley Edwards a lot. We became friends in recent years through email and the internet. In my experience, she is a very kind person and is remarkably generous with her time. Politically speaking though, we are poles apart. I also find her analyses of Irish history deeply problematic. This is especially true of her perspective on the Easter Rising. Indeed, it seems to me that in challenging the ambiguities and contradictions of 1916, Ruth engages in some anachronistic myth-making of her own.

Ruth rightly complains about the conspiratorial nature of the Rising and the fact that its leaders were unelected. However, it is daft to suggest -- as she often does in her opinion pieces -- that Ireland was a democracy in 1916. On the contrary, most Irish adults could not vote in general elections until the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918. Before then, only about half of all Irish males over the age of 21 were wealthy enough to qualify for the right to vote, and of course, women could not vote at all. Instead, Ireland was governed from Dublin Castle by unelected administrators appointed by the British cabinet. They were not answerable to Irish MPs.

Furthermore, general elections in Ireland before 1918 were not real contests. The strong-arm tactics of the Irish Parliamentary Party and their heavies in the Ancient Order of Hibernians made it very difficult for rival nationalist parties to develop. Those who complain about Sinn Féin's victories in uncontested constituencies in 1918 neglect to mention that there were far more uncontested constituencies in previous general elections. In the 1910 general election for example, 63 of the 101 Irish constituencies were not contested. There were 25 uncontested constituencies in 1918 and most of them were in areas where Sinn Féin was already dominant. Had these constituencies been contested, a clear majority of the electorate in Ireland would almost certainly have voted for the party. Thus, the percentage of votes cast for Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election grossly underestimated the party’s real support at that time. Most importantly, roughly 75 percent of Irish adults had the right to vote in 1918, as opposed to 26 percent in the previous general election in 1910. For all its flaws then, the 1918 general election was far more democratic than the preceding ones.

Ruth condemns the 1916 Proclamation and its signatories as “anti-democratic”, but it is disingenuous for her to suggest that the Ulster Covenant of 1912 was a democratic exercise. By signing the Covenant, Irish unionists committed themselves not just to the exemption of Ulster from Home Rule, but to "using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland." They demonstrated the seriousness of their threat by forming the Ulster Volunteers within a few months of the Covenant being signed. That particular phrase from the Covenant ironically foreshadowed the pledge in the Sinn Féin 1918 general election manifesto (the widely-circulated, uncensored version) to "use any and every means available" to achieve a 32-county republic. Ruth herself made a similar observation at the centenary of the Covenant in 2012 when she remarked that “without Edward Carson there might not have been an Easter Rising.”

Apart from all that though, the biggest weakness in Ruth's analysis is that the period in Irish history from 1912 to 1922 proved that the British government was in fact more likely to be swayed by force (or the threat of it) than by constitutional means. It abandoned 32-county Home Rule in response to the threats of the UVF and British army officers in the Curragh. Three decades of constitutional campaigning by Irish nationalists for a legislatively independent Irish parliament achieved only the offer of a very limited Home Rule assembly for the South. Ruth may not like the means by which an independent Irish state in the 26 counties was achieved, but that does not mean they were ineffective or unnecessary.

Like John Bruton's pious pontifications about Home Rule last year, I think Ruth's argument is not so much an historical analysis about early 20th century Ireland as it is political posturing for a 21st-century, post-nationalist Irish audience. I would find her proclaimed aversion to violent nationalism far more credible if she was not such a steadfast supporter of Israel’s brutal, bloody and unnecessary wars in Gaza. Israeli Defence Forces probably killed more civilians last summer than Irish republicans did in the whole of the twentieth century, but Ruth excuses the former killings while condemning the latter.

In my view, such double standards are far more likely to close minds to critical reflection on 1916 than to open them to it.

No comments:

Post a Comment