Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Our forefathers of 1914 would envy us the peace we found

Political deadlock at home, the shadow of the gunman never far away, international crises dominating the headlines. Things may be bad in 2014, but they were a lot worse 100 years ago

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are at loggerheads in the Executive
Unionist leader Edward Carson during an anti-Home Rule rally
Men of the 36th Ulster Division during the bloody Battle of the Somme in 1916

Earlier this week I was talking to a friend whom I've known for many years. We were discussing the events marking the centenary of Britain's declaration of war on Germany in August 1914.

Then the conversation took one of those turns with which we're all familiar. My former colleague expressed his dissatisfaction with the performance of our politicians at Stormont.

He listed the various failures of our elected representatives. "Twenty years on from the first ceasefires", "Sixteen years from the Belfast Agreement", headed the litany of opportunities that a quarrel of politicians had missed. They couldn't even agree on simple things, he opined.

And the two major parties seemed to have developed a game of sorts in which one put forward a cherished proposal which the other took pleasure in stopping. The miracle was that anything had happened.

It was difficult to disagree with him, since both main parties appear to be doing exactly as he says, playing what might be described as childish games if they weren't actually involved in the serious task of governing.

But then, remembering how our conversation had begun, I began reflecting on how our grandparents and great-grandparents might have felt a century ago.

Then, as now, the major political bodies in Ireland, and especially in Ulster, were involved in a game of brinkmanship that could have plunged the entire island into civil war. Both had cherished ideas which the other wanted to stop. Both had created armed militias that paraded openly with weapons.

Both had put considerable effort into organising those militias. Old soldiers and officers on half pay were helping to train them. The Ulster Volunteer Force, the UVF, numbered perhaps 80,000 men. And the UVF was well-armed and trained to use its arms.

The Irish Volunteers did not have as many men in Ulster but, across all Ireland, formed a substantial force. However, the leaders of the UVF included more men with power and money and they had been able to buy many more weapons.

The Irish Volunteers supported Home Rule for Ireland and the Home Rule Bill that was enacted as the Government of Ireland Act just as war enveloped Europe. The UVF opposed Home Rule and was prepared to go to extreme lengths to prevent it being imposed. That included bringing arms into Ulster. Although its first attempts to do so were unsuccessful, a new plan met with success.

In an operation that would have been the envy of military logisticians of many nations, a group of Ulster businessmen purchased a large quantity of modern rifles in Germany.

The only real glitch in the plan came from Danish customs officials, who believed that the vessel carrying the guns might be bound for Iceland to arm Icelandic home rulers, who were looking for independence from Denmark.

Not only were arms purchased, but so was a ship, the Clyde Valley, renamed Mountjoy II, which brought the guns into Belfast Lough.

From Larne, Bangor and Donaghadee, rifles were moved to UVF units across Ulster, evading police who were trying to stop the operation.

In contrast, the Irish Volunteers only managed to buy a small quantity of older rifles that were brought into Howth in broad daylight aboard the Asgard, owned by English-born Erskine Childers, whose mother came from Wicklow.

With their Larne and Howth guns, both militias continued their drilling and arms training. As the Home Rule Bill progressed through Parliament their leaders knew that the legislation would become law.

The Parliament Act of 1911 had removed the House of Lords' power to veto permanently legislation that had passed the Commons. Under the provisions of the Parliament Act the Home Rule Bill would become law by autumn 1914.

It's doubtful if many people in Ireland could have found Sarajevo on a map. Many would never have heard of the city, or of Bosnia Herzegovina.

But on June 28, 1914, a photographer just happened to be on hand as Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist, shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie during a visit to Sarajevo.

Those shots were to echo around the world. The echoes did not miss Ireland.

While the attention of most Irish people – and indeed much of the UK – remained on the Home Rule crisis, Europe was about to plunge into war. Austria threatened Serbia, blaming the Serbs for the assassination of the archduke and his wife. Russia had pledged support to Serbia. Germany had likewise pledged support to Austria-Hungary.

When Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28, Russia followed with a declaration of war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Then Germany and Russia were at war, and Germany followed this with a declaration of war on France.

And a German plan to invade France was soon to be implemented. The German Great General Staff were confident that France could be knocked out before Russia had mobilised fully. With France out of the way, the German railways would carry the victorious armies to tackle the Russians.

Such was the master plan. But the nation whose military genius, Helmuth Von Moltke, had reminded every commander that "no plan survives first contact with the enemy" seemed to have forgotten that piece of advice.

For the Belgian and French armies failed to co-operate with Germany's master plan and the German armies, instead of a quick victory, were to experience four years of grinding attritional warfare.

Germany's decision to send part of its attacking force through Belgium drew Britain into the war. Political eyes that had been focused on the Ulster crisis moved swiftly to the bigger picture. Although the Government of Ireland Act received Royal Assent in September it was suspended, initially for a year, and then for the duration of the war.

In Ireland not many seemed to mind that Home Rule had been delayed. Both militias provided men for the Army, although the Irish Volunteers split, with those who supported John Redmond becoming the National Volunteers and the Irish Volunteers taking the first steps on the road to the 1916 rebellion.

So, while today we may have a dysfunctional political system and a devolved Government that seems unable to work effectively, we at least have politicians who are talking – even if at times they are talking at, rather than to, each other.

In many ways we are better off than we were two decades ago, or three or even four decades ago. We have an imperfect peace, but it's so much better than the Northern Ireland of 1972, or 1982.

And infinitely better than the Ireland, and Europe, of August 1914, when the harvest of war that was to reap millions of dead by 1919 was just beginning.

Richard Doherty is a military historian and author

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