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Out with the old, in with the new

This is the text of an address given by Frank Callanan in the King’s Inns in June this year to mark the publication by the Royal Irish Academy of Alvin Jackson’s Judging Redmond and Carson, which was was reviewed in the drb by John Swift.

In his conjoint biography of Redmond and Carson ‑ a project full of problems and pitfalls ‑ Alvin Jackson has succeeded resoundingly. It marks a further stage in his project of identifying what was common to nationalism and loyalism in Ireland, on which he embarked in his Home Rule: An Irish History, 1800-2000, published in 2003. His driving apercu is more forceful than I initially thought it could be, and contemporary events, as the drama of Brexit plays out in Northern Ireland and as what once seemed the fixed contours of that entity continue to change shape, validate his prescience. The “dreary steeples” of which Winston Churchill wrote are unexpectedly bathed in whirling European lights.

One of the book’s singular merits is its treatment of Carson’s barristeriality. He lived in the high era of the extrovert advocate, where the gamble was part of the great game to the end: Rien ne va plus. Les jeux sont faits. Jackson’s argument on this is that “Carson carried into politics the culture of the law courts, and that he brought qualities of individuality, theatricality, brinkmanship, and boldness to the political stage”. Jackson presses this just as far as it goes. I don’t think it captures the central truth ‑ nor does Jackson ‑ but one can get a considerable distance in construing Carson’s relation to unionism, and especially to Northern unionism, as having some of the attributes of the relationship of barrister and client.

We live in an age in which politicians are routinely denigrated. In relation to the bar, politics is the greater calling, not just because of its direct public import, but because the odds of success are much longer. If barristers can have highly successful political careers, they still tend to remain in some degree marked apart as not quite belonging to the generality of politicians. Barrister politicians are not exclusively steeped in politics, and maintain lines of retreat to professional practice and judicial office.

Perhaps we do not give enough attention to the confederacy of Carson and Birkenhead, both leading advocates, in the extra-constitutional resistance to home rule in what became Northern Ireland. I think it was Francis Cruise O’Brien who said of TM Healy that he had the mind, nay the soul, of a barrister. One can wonder whether Carson was in some sense existentially a barrister. It is more I think that he was a less than fully integrated political persona. I say that by reason of his treatment of Southern as against Northern unionism. On partition he had perhaps as little choice as Redmond, but it was something on which he harboured some misgivings in his long life after politics. I say it also by reason of the temperamental inability to observe political collegiality that marked his two periods of cabinet office.

One could endlessly posit co-relations of the character traits of barrister politicians to their professional background, but not to cogent effect. One tends to forget that Asquith was a barrister, who as a junior counsel at the Special Commission took Parnell through his evidence in chief. John Maynard Keynes had a devastating criticism of Asquith, with whom he was friendly, cited by Richard Davenport-Hines. Keynes believed it a signal mistake of Asquith’s to forget about a piece of business once he had signed it off, and “not to carry it about with him in his mind and on his tongue when the official day’s work was done”. One could try to connect that to his formation as a barrister. However, not all barristers share Asquith’s approach, and the confident habit was one that had deep roots in Asquith’s character and in his lifestyle. There are generic features of the barrister-politician, but assessing the intersection of the bar and politics needs to be a guarded exercise. The prominence of the acclaimed advocate of the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras is a somewhat freakish socio-political phenomenon of the epoch.  

A further merit of Alvin Jackson’s work, and for me one of its shrewdest insights, is that Redmond’s underestimation of and refusal to take entirely seriously Carson’s gambits in the early stages of the Home Rule crisis owed much to the fact that nationalists and unionists struck militant postures in British politics that strangely mirrored each other. There is a balancing proposition that reflects Alvin’s mining of what the two contestatory movements on the island had in common: “Distant from those whom he led, influential with, but not beholden to, one of the main British parties – Carson himself was not wholly removed from the strategic style and spirit of Parnellism.” In his audit of political ironies, Carson becomes “(at least temperamentally) more of a Parnellite than Redmond”.

Part of the difficulty in measuring Redmond against Carson, of which Alvin Jackson is fully conscious, is that Redmond had a significantly weaker hand. Margaret O’Callaghan has written that an appraisal of Redmond’s career over the radically different decades across which it extended indicates that it cannot bear the weight of the battles that contemporary polemicists place upon him and it. Redmond, particularly after the fall of Parnell in 1891 lived in a sphere of narrow choices; he lacked significant agency over the question of Home Rule for most of his political career.

By contrast, Alvin writes of Carson’s “autonomy of action” within the constellation of contemporary unionism.

One of the greatest merits of Alvin Jackson’s analysis of the contest of Carson and Redmond’s leadership of their respective causes is negative: it does not pretend to offer a simple answer. It is in that way a response to the instrumentalisation of partition that was once a prominent feature of political discourse in the Irish republic, of which the current Sinn Féin now has sole ownership, as well as of the historic name of Sinn Féin, whose actual adherents lost, in what has come to appear as an act of conjoint negligence on the part of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil rather than what it was, the outfall of the civil war. Ronan Fanning’s Fatal Path is an important work, but there is something troubling in the confidence of its argument that Sinn Féin achieved more than the Irish Party could have. It is a plausible proposition, but it is at least in a formal sense hypothetical and counterfactual, and it involves value judgements that need to be weighed. The issue defies crisp adjudication. Punditry is not the business of historians. Alvin Jackson’s patient relativism is more convincing.

I think history will be kinder to Redmond than the politics of the Irish state has been, at least up until the 1970s, and not just because of the pieties of the commemorative cycle through which we are passing – if we have not actually passed out in.

Redmond is less enigmatic than personally impenetrable beyond the competence and relative suavity of his pursuit of Home Rule. He did not possess –and who could? – the almost surreal charisma of Parnell. Physically his aspect of a somewhat paunchy Irish country gentleman did not rival Carson’s implacable jaw and grimly set expression, at least in the photographic framing of their images. He lacked also the bluff directness of his brother William, greatly mourned on his death in the Great War in June 1917.

Redmond’s career – what he witnessed and was part of – from his election in New Ross in 1881 was truly extraordinary. His loyalty to Parnell in the split of 1890-91, and that of TC Harrington, made Parnell’s campaign to reconstitute his leadership politically viable, though Parnell would, as he made absolutely clear, have ploughed on alone if he had to. His fealty to Parnell in the split should never be forgotten. He was adroit in maintaining Fenian support through the 1890s. His career in the split in Parnell’s lifetime and thereafter as leader of the Parnellite minority seems at first hard to reconcile with his calculated moderation as the leader of the reunited Irish party from 1900.

It is not difficult to explain. Redmond was committed initially to maintaining the cohesion of the Parnellite minority and thereafter that of the reunited Irish party. Temperamentally he was not expansive. To this were added the constraints of seeking to achieve Home Rule and of maintaining intact the movement. He negotiated those constraints with high competence, but it was not to be enough. What he lacked, or chose not to exercise, was the faculty of self-dramatisation as he negotiated those constraints. To suggest that he should have educated the nationalist public in the possibility of partition is not realistic. But he did need to dramatise his own agon in the struggle for Home Rule, an aptitude in which he was singularly deficient.

The second criticism that might be made of Redmond relates to his imperialism. It is true that Home Rule was a broad platform, and by no means all nationalists were opposed to the British empire. John Redmond made a speech at the Cambridge Union in 1895 on “Irish Home Rule”. He expressed his conviction that Home Rule would be the first step in a great system of decentralisation that would devolve to local assemblies responsibility for local affairs “and thus clear the way for the creation of that great Imperial Senate which, in future, he believed, would govern the Empire”, whose dominions had been won by Irishmen as much as Britons. Arthur Griffith, whose own views on empire were anomalous, was constantly to invoke the speech against Redmond. Redmond’s views were not so unusual, but he was then the leader of the Parnellite minority, and would become in five years the leader of the reunited Irish party. His imperial schema, avowed just a little too explicitly and enthusiastically, did influence his political course, at least at the margin, and informed his famous “wherever the firing line extends” declaration to the East Wicklow Volunteers at Woodenbridge on September 20th, 1914.

Redmond’s lack of agency, to which Margaret O’Callaghan refers, subsisted at every level. It was not just that his Westminster options were constrained. The model of the Irish Party as purely a vehicle to obtain legislative change was much more circumscribed than that of a modern political party free to champion a diversity of issues: all other issues were to be deferred to the attainment of Home Rule. All the Irish Party’s eggs were in the Home Rule basket. From 1900 that gave the party an appearance of intellectual jadedness. There was a profound difficulty in political mobilisation in Ireland that Parnell had temporarily resolved with the new departure, the elan of which gave nationalism the momentum it maintained through the 1880s. The mobilisation of the North to resist Home Rule cast this in high relief. These were constraints which Redmond inherited or to which he was ineluctably subject. It was too late to reinvent the Irish Party.

The 1916 Rising was directed as much against the Irish Party as against the British government. The fear of the rebels was that Redmond and Home Rule would prevail. This fear we must recognise as having been highly ideological: that a bourgeois Irish party would provide the government of a Home Rule Ireland; that a Home Rule state would not sufficiently acknowledge the Gaelic heritage of the Irish nation; that the Irish public would be sated in perpetuity by Home Rule, and that the project of attaining Irish independence would never progress beyond Home Rule. These were pretty thin considerations. Sinn Féin’s ideologically heightened conception of the finality of a Home Rule settlement far exceeded that held by the Irish Party.

To this of course has to be added the sense among the wider Irish public that Britain had failed to make good Gladstone’s promise of 1886, and the disenchantments of the Great War. In some ways it came down to the idea that after the long interval of frustration from 1886 it was better to wrest independence than to have it conceded. That was the thinking of Griffith and the First Dáil. It did not of itself entail a descent into violence. It is a reflex of exasperation with which I have some sympathy.

We need to reconcile ourselves to a large margin of political and ethical indeterminacy in relation to the choices that were made, or seized, in nationalist Ireland between the suspensive enactment of Home Rule on September 18th, 1914 and the signing of the treaty on December 6th, 1921. The debate, no longer semi-repressed, will outlast us all.

What defined and in some degree disfigured the politics of the early Irish state was that neither of the sundered factions of Sinn Féin could afford to acknowledge the least continuity with the Irish Party. Cumann na nGaedheal incorporated some of the survivors of the Irish party. Seán Lemass, the most impatiently modernising Irish taoiseach, here in the King’s Inns in February 1966, paid tribute to the Irishmen who had died in the Great War. It is not just the commemorative cycle, but the deep course of Irish politics, and of the development of the European Union, that has enabled us to move beyond the straitened politics of the early decades of statehood.

It is in this setting in political time, and in this place where they were students, that we remember two men who were defined by their adversity, Edward Henry Carson, Baron Carson of Duncairn, and John Edward Redmond.

Illustration: 'Mr Punch' tries to introduce Carson and Redmond in 1914.

26/11/2018