Tuesday, 1 May 2012


When John Redmond spoke here in September 1914, he was speaking to his friends and neighbours, the men of the East Wicklow Volunteers. He probably would have been personally acquainted with a majority of the men in the parade, and their families.
 He was on his way to his home in Aughavanagh.
 He had left London a day before, having succeeded in the great task of his life, seeing the Home Rule Act passed into law, after over thirty years of patient parliamentary work and public  peaceful agitation.
He had taken the boat from Holyhead and was passing here by car and  saw the parade taking place under the captaincy of the local schoolmaster and  friend of his, a Captain McSweeney, who, in addition to his work as a local teacher and captain in the Volunteers, was a keen activist in the Irish language revival movement. 
Having told the men on parade that he knew they would make efficient soldiers,  referring to the German invasion of Belgium, John Redmond urged his friends to support the Allied cause  as follows;
“Go on drilling and make yourselves efficient for the work, and then account for yourselves as men, not only in Ireland itself, but wherever the fighting line extends in defence of right and freedom and religion in this war”
 Under the Home Rule Bill ,that had passed into law two days before John Redmond  spoke here, a united Ireland of 32 counties would have enjoyed a devolution of  the powers of legislation and domestic administration, but without control over foreign and military affairs and without control of customs duties. Any exclusion of Ulster counties was to be purely temporary.
 Some have minimised Redmond’s achievement in getting Home Rule passed,  criticised  the  speech two days later in Woodenbridge,  and blamed him for Irish  casualties in the Great War.
I believe such critics are mistaken.
 John Redmond’s achievement was enormous. Relying on wholly constitutional and parliamentary methods, he had succeeded where O Connell, Butt and Parnell   had all failed.  He actually got Home Rule onto the Statute Book.
 After an intense political struggle, in face of vetoes by the House of Lords, threats of mutiny within the military, and threats of physical violence by the Ulster Volunteers, the Home Rule Bill was finally passed into law on 18 September 1914, two days before he spoke here. 
This was a month after the war had broken out with Imperial Germany. When the War first broke out in August 1914, the Asquith led  Liberal Government initially wanted to postpone the final passage of the Home Rule Bill, which  was still strongly opposed by the  Conservative party, as part of a  wartime political  truce,   which was, in Asquith’s words, to be “without prejudice to the domestic  and political positions of any party”.
 But John Redmond insisted that Home Rule be brought into law. He got his way. The law was passed, and assented to by the King, but its operation was suspended for twelve months, or until the end of the war, whichever was to come later. This postponement was seen as reasonable in the circumstances. It allowed the energies of all concerned to be concentrated on winning what was expected to be a short  War.
I believe John Redmond was right on the issues at stake in that War and in his support for the Allied cause .
The German invasion of neutral Belgium the previous month was entirely unprovoked.
 Germany had  found itself facing a war with Russia, over Germany’s support for excessive demands the Austro Hungarian Empire was making on Serbia. Germany was worried that France might go to war support Russia. But France had not yet done that.
 Imperial Germany it did not wait. It decided to attack France first, hoping it could quickly knock out France like it had done in 1870. And the best route by which to attack France   was through Belgium. Belgian neutrality was to be treated as an irrelevance.
 Some believe that ,as an Irish Leader, John Redmond was wrong to takes sides in such a war to defend the territorial integrity of a neutral state. This is a strange position to take, given that we make so much of our own neutrality today. Or perhaps the view is that only our own neutrality is important, and other people’s neutrality does not matter. That is hardly a sustainable position in international relations.  
Redmond was criticised at the time, by a minority in the Volunteers who later seceded, for not waiting for an Irish Government first to be formed in Dublin before taking sides. But they did not say it was, as such, wrong for an Irish leader to take a side.
The rebels of Easter Week 1916, did not wait for an Irish Government to be formed or for a mandate from the people,  before taking a  side,  the opposite side to the one chosen by John Redmond, when they explicitly stated, in their Proclamation , that they were  allied with what they described as  their “gallant  allies” in Europe.
 These “ gallant allies” were Imperial Germany, the Austro Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire.  The morality of this “alliance” has never been seriously questioned or debated in Ireland in the past century, and perhaps it is time that it was.
Looking at the facts as they were in September 1914, the unprovoked invasion of neutral Belgium, the excessive demands made on Serbia, and the atrocities committed in Belgium by the invaders, I believe Redmond’s position on the War holds up better   than does the self proclaimed alliance of the 1916 men with the German, Austro Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires.
  I do not believe that the maxim that your neighbour’s difficulty is your opportunity, is necessarily a good one, or one that trumps other considerations. Irish people had then, and have now, a sense of justice, not only for ourselves but for other countries too.
Leaving morality aside, was Redmond tactically foolish to call for Irish men to join the Army in September 1914?
This question has to be judged by what Redmond was trying to achieve at the time.  He was trying to persuade Ulster Unionists to voluntarily come in under a Home Rule Government in Dublin.
All the concessions he made, including accepting Home Rule as a final settlement and accepting a reduction in Irish  representation in the House of Commons , were made to achieve that  goal, free acceptance of  Home Rule by Unionists, or ” unity by consent”.
 Redmond believed it was attainable, but only if he could demonstrate to Ulster Unionists that  Home Rule did not mean abandoning their British loyalty.  Redmond believed that one way of making Ulster Unionists see Irish Nationalism in a different light, would be if Irish Nationalists stood shoulder to shoulder with them in a common endeavour to defend Belgian neutrality, and the rights of small nations. Rather than being opponents, as they had been in the previous four years of bitter domestic political struggle, they would thus be  on the same side.
Redmond knew he was taking a risk in his call at Woodenbridge. But it was a calculated risk. He took the risk in an attempt to achieve genuine Irish unity by consent.
 Given that all subsequent attempts, including terror, boycotting Northern goods, and  demanding that the British  deploy the threat of coercing Unionist into a  united Ireland, have  failed to achieve  voluntary (or any other kind of ) unity, one should be slow to criticise Redmond, unless one has, or had, a better plan.
 Of course, if a united Ireland by consent was never a serious goal, was more of a necessary piety, and if  maximum  separation of just 26 or 28  counties  from Britain was the real  goal, one could take a different view. 
  But that was not John Redmond’s position. He believed he could  win over Unionists, but  he did not believe that would be  possible, if  he stood aside from a conflict that Unionists regarded  as existential, and he could show was inherently just, on its merits anyway.
 One might accuse Redmond of making a miscalculation in his speech here 98 years ago, because he did not foresee that the war would  go on so long,  that there would be so many casualties, and that it would  bring down the Liberal Government whose dependence on Irish party parliamentary support after the 1910 election support had made Home Rule possible in the first place. 
At the time most people, including most military experts , expected that this war, like most of the wars of the nineteenth century, would be over within  a year or so. Unfortunately they were wrong. Improved defensive military technology, like the machine gun, which made it harder to advance, and easier to defend ground, meant that the war dragged on for four and a quarter awful years.

It is wrong to make Redmond responsible for the terrible price that was paid in the trenches. Large numbers of Irish men would have joined up anyway, especially now that Home Rule was passed, whatever Redmond said or did not say at Woodenbridge. All the historical evidence suggests points in this direction.
 After all, just fourteen years after the passage of the hated Act of Union, 40% of Wellngton’s army at Waterloo was Irish. Large number of Irish fought in the Crimean War. In his book on that war, Olando Figes states that in the parishes of Whitegate and Aghada in East Cork, almost one third of the male population died fighting in the British Army in the Crimea.
 So to say that Redmond’s stance is responsible for the “terrible price” that a  generation of  young Irish men paid in the trenches is  unhistorical .
 The only way Redmond could have affected the issue would have been if he had campaigned for Irish men NOT to join up. But if he had done that, he would have been saying goodbye to Irish unity, and would  have run the risk that the Home Rule Act, he had worked  so hard to pass, would have been repealed ,on the  ground that Home Rule, in those circumstances, would have been a threat to British security.
It is right to commemorate the introduction of the Home Rule Bill 100 years ago, in 1912. But introducing the Bill was one thing, passing it ,and implementing it on an all Ireland basis  was another. That was what Redmond achieved in September 1914, ninety eight years ago, something which subsequent generations have yet to achieve, a united Ireland.

Speech  at a ceremony in Woodenbridge Golf Club, Co Wicklow, on Sunday  29 April 2012, at the unveiling of a stone commemorating the speech of John Redmond MP, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, in Woodenbridge in September 1914 to a parade of the   Irish Volunteers.

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