Belfast Telegraph

Home Rule party got on the wrong side of Irish history

By Eamonn McCann

A century is a short time in Irish politics, as former taoiseach John Bruton discovered after delivering a speech in London three weeks ago suggesting that the Home Rule Bill, which received the royal assent 100 years ago this month, should be commemorated alongside the 1916 Rising.

His point was that, if nationalists had held on and not risen up in 1916, the Bill would have come into effect within a few years and delivered "dominion status". Most of Ulster would have remained within the UK, but with little of the rancour which was to blight north-south relations for decades. This would in turn have cleared a path towards wider constitutional change.

Most historians see this as wildly, pointlessly speculative. The deal on offer was more likely to prove a brick wall than a stepping-stone. Left out of Bruton's argument, too, was the fact that had John Redmond and John Dillon, leader and deputy leader of the Parliamentary Party, remained at the helm of nationalism, the whole of Ireland would have been plunged even more deeply into the criminal bloodbath of the First World War.

Bruton is on a solo run, anyway. Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Sinn Fein and their various offshoots all insist they stand in the tradition of 1916. They are not about to admit the possibility that the Rising and the events which followed served no good purpose. Likewise, unionists won't rush to acknowledge a Bill which their forebears armed themselves to defeat.

More significantly, there is no Redmondite party around with which any faction feels a need to reconcile. Many claim the mantle of 1916, but the Home Rule Bill is nobody's child.

All that said, the Redmond/Dillon party was a more interesting phenomenon than is commonly supposed. Responding to Bruton, the Left-wing historian Brian Hanley pointed out that a quarter of Redmond's MPs in the early 1900s were former Fenians – a more radical republican outfit than any around today.

Redmond spent much of his energy in the 1890s campaigning for the release of republican prisoners. "They are men who sacrificed everything ... to benefit Ireland. What do we care whether their effort was a wise one or not, mistaken or not?"

When Tom Clark – with Sean Mac Diarmada, the main organiser of the Easter Rising – was freed from prison in 1897, the first person he thanked for helping win his release was John Redmond.

Meanwhile, Dillon had, with Michael Davitt, spearheaded the boycott campaign against rack-renting landlords in the 1880s. Imprisoned six times, he was described in the Commons as "the most extreme of the agitators". This is not the Redmond, or Dillon, who have come down to us in history. But, again, nobody has an interest in bigging them up.

A constitutional party with former Fenians in its leadership which, by its own lights, and John Bruton's, made a significant advance towards realisation of the age-old nationalist dream is surely worthy of inspection in our own time.

After all, the parties which followed and which have successively promised a united Ireland to be won by war have, without exception, eventually abandoned armed struggle on an unfulfilled pledge to lead the way to the promised land by a different route.

What's more, Redmond and Dillon's contribution to the formation of the southern state didn't end with the burial of their party in the 1918 landslide, in which Sinn Fein swept the boards in every contested nationalist seat on the island, apart from Wexford and West Belfast.

Retired to Mayo, Dillon saw his family home severely damaged during the civil war. At the end of that phase of conflict, he made a claim for compensation, arranging a professional survey of the building and costings of the work to be done. He was one of dozens of claimants to assemble in court on the day the cases were down for hearing.

This area, observed the judge, is notorious for its number of rogues and reprobates. He had no doubt that all of the estimates were vastly exaggerated. He set the compensation for each at half the amount claimed.

Dillon later discovered that every other claimant had, indeed, been out to defraud the infant state and had more than doubled the amounts they billed for. All of them trousered what they were due, plus a bonus on top. Only he, the one honest man among them, had suffered loss.

"Ah well," he is said to have remarked, "at least we now know what the new Ireland is going to be like."

He got that one right in the end.

Belfast Telegraph

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