Opinions & Ideas

Category: Scotland


I recently enjoyed “Jacobites, a new history of the 1745 Rebellion” by Jacqueline Riding.

Recently I visited Scotland and was at Glenfinnan, where Prince Charles Edward first raised the standard of his father, James III, as the legitimate King of the UK on 19 August 1745.

 I also saw and the battlefield of Culloden, near Inverness where his attempt to reclaim the throne came to bloody end on 16 April 1746.

 This was the last pitched battle fought on British soil, and ended a struggle that had involved Ireland at the battles of the Boyne in 1690 and Aughrim in 1691.

Riding’s book is timely, as it illustrates the close connection of Scotland with continental Europe, something the English sometimes fail to appreciate, as we see nowadays as Brexit unfolds.

There was also considerable Irish involvement in Charles Edward’s campaign.

The bulk of the small number of French troops, sent to aid him, came from Irish regiments in the French Army. The leading financiers of the campaign were French based Irishmen, Antoine Walsh and Walter Ruttledge. Of the small party that landed in Scotland with the Prince in 1745, the majority were Irish.  

Charles Edward was only 25 when he set out on what must have seemed a reckless endeavour, with little chance of success. French military help was modest, and designed more to create a diversion from other theatres of war (mainly in present day Belgium) that were more vital to French interests than was securing the British throne for James III.

Initially, Charles Edward had astounding success. He took Edinburgh (except its castle) without firing a shot. He then defeated a British army at Prestonpans.

He held court in Edinburgh for a few weeks, promising, among other things to grant religious toleration to all, and to repeal the Act of Union of 1707 between England and Scotland. While there he enhanced his mainly highland Scottish Army with lowland Scots recruits.

He then decided to lead a winter invasion of England, crossing the border at Carlisle, and heading for Lancashire where there was considered to be support for the Jacobite cause. But there was just one small, easily suppressed, rising on his behalf, by Catholics in the vicinity of Omskerk near Liverpool. The Catolic clergy advised their flock not to get involved. He was able to raise a force in Manchester, mainly among local Catholics, but practical English support for his cause proved very disappointing.

After an agonising debate, it was decided in December, at Derby, that he should not continue with his invasion but should lead his Army back to Scotland, and await more substantial help from France.  Most of the Scottish forces, on which he depended and who had much to lose, preferred to fight for their cause in their native country than to wait to be overwhelmed by superior forces gathering in what was, for them, in a foreign land.

The Prince himself wanted go on to London. But that endeavour could only have worked if there was a simultaneous invasion from France, which could not be guaranteed.

Prince Charles Edward’s army could move much faster than the more cumbersome English forces, and so evaded them to get back safely to Scotland, where he did indeed prove to have more solid support.

Once back in Scotland, he got local more recruits and help from France, and won another military victory at Falkirk.

But his position was never secure.

Hanoverian forces still held too many of the strong points in Scotland and the Prince’s Highland clansmen were more suited to short aggressive campaigns, than they were to a war of attrition. Money was also in short supply. And French help did not always get through because the Royal Navy was so strong.

He was finally defeated at Culloden, near Inverness, by the Duke of Cumberland, the son of King George II, and, like Charles, in his mid twenties. Large numbers of highlanders were massacred in cold blood after the battle, while those fighting for the Prince in French uniforms were spared.

The Prince eventually escaped to France, but was ejected from there when France made peace with England.

He had to return to Rome and the protection of the Pope and of his brother, Henry Stuart, who had become a Cardinal. He continued to seek a way to win back the throne, and in 1749 he became a Protestant, presumably to make himself more acceptable to English opinion.

He was a leader of immense flair, courage, and charisma when things were going well. But seemed unable to hide his feelings when things went wrong, which demoralised his supporters.

He lived out his life in Rome, never giving up on the hope of a return to the throne. He had a daughter, Charlotte, Duchess of Albany, who survived him by only two years. In terms of public achievement, his life was over, almost before it had begun.


I bought Antonia Frasers biography of Mary Queen of Scots, in a second hand bookshop in Paris, a few years ago, and eventually got around to reading its 667 pages over the Christmas period.

It  is a riveting personal story of a woman who became Queen of Scotland  as an infant,  and  who spent her childhood and teenage years in France, where  she  married the King .

Then, after the King of France had died, and she was still only 19 years old, she returned to Scotland in 1561 to take up her responsibility as monarch of her native country.

Politics was different then.

In Scotland, much the real power rested with the nobility, who controlled the land and its revenues, and who could, and did, dictate to the monarch. Parliaments were often no more than a vehicle for the power of the landed nobility.

Religion added a new source of contention, especially if the monarch and her subjects had different religious beliefs. Mary was a convinced Catholic, while the majority of her subjects had recently become Protestant followers of Calvin and Knox…Presbyterians.

She did not attempt to force her Catholic religious views on her subjects, in stark contrast to the policy followed in England by the monarchs of that country, both Protestant and Catholic.

In Scotland the drive for religious conformity came from the bottom up.iin England, it came from the top down.

Mary also had a claim on the English throne, through her grandmother, Margaret Tudor, a sister of Henry XIII.

So when all  Henry VIII’s offspring had no children, Mary would have been the uncontested  heir to the English throne too, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I.

In fact, she could even claim precedence over Elizabeth, because , in Catholic eyes, Elizabeth was illegitimate, because her mother, Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry VIII took place, while his first wife, Catherine, was still alive. As we know, the Pope did not agree to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine.

Interestingly Mary’s own grandmother, Margaret Tudor, a staunch Catholic, had had an annulment of her marriage to her second husband, the Earl of Angus.

Mary herself had numerous half brothers and sisters, because her father had had active relations with women, other than Mary’s mother.

So Mary’s person, and her choice of husband (she had three), became an instrument in the  politics of Europe, and in the struggle for predominance between France, Spain and England, and between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Although she was a charming intelligent and generally cautious ruler, the forces with which she had to contend eventually became far too great for her.

She was forced to abdicate in 1567, attempted to regain the throne by force, and was defeated. She had to quit Scotland, leaving her infant son,  James, who was eventually to become King of both England and Scotland, behind, never to see him again. She was only 25.

But, instead of fleeing to France where she would have been well received and had many powerful relatives, she fled to England. This was a fatal and foolish mistake.

In England, she became an acute embarrassment to her host, Queen Elizabeth, who feared , with reason, that, as a legitimate claimant to the English throne, Mary would provide a rallying point for English Catholics and their continental allies, who wanted to dethrone Elizabeth, and restore the Catholic faith.

Eventually, after twenty years imprisonment, Elizabeth had Mary executed in 1587, when she was still only 44 years of age.

This tragic story brings out the deep historical, political and religious differences between Scotland and England. It exposes the roots of the suspicion between England and the continent, a suspicion that is not prevalent in Scotland. States were much weaker then than they are today.

It reminds the reader how different were the priorities of political actors 500 years ago. Heredity and religion were much more important than trade and economics. Only the pursuit of power is a constant.




What have the following in common?

+ The Scottish 45% YES to break up the UK….+ The Growth of National Front in France….+ English anti EU sentiment and support for UKIP…. + The strength of Tea Party  and the polarisation of politics in the  USA and + The growing support for anti immigrant parties in Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

They have this in common. All these parties want to withdraw from some international commitment or other, and shut the doors of their nation to outside influences. 

What support for these parties shows is that an introverted and recessive Nationalism is on the rise again. This is a reaction against globalisation by those who have benefitted less from it than others did. 

It should be noted that all have benefitted from globalisation through cheaper food, clothes, and cheaper communications. But some have benefitted much more than others, and the “others” are expressing their disgruntlement through votes for these populist parties.

These parties want a repatriation of powers to the national level, and even complete withdrawal from international bodies like the WTO, the European Union, and the European Convention on Human Rights.

People supporting these parties say they do not understand how Brussels works, or how Westminster or Washington works. But do they really understand any better how their local council works ? 

This is why I am unconvinced that concession of their literal demands would actually remove the discontents that lie behind support for these parties. 

For example, I am not convinced that an elaborate system of federalism within UK, or UK withdrawal from the EU, would actually assuage the anger being expressed through UKIP votes. The experience of post Franco regional devolution in Spain is not completely reassuring.

In Scotland, the younger and the poorer sections of population   were the most alienated, and voted most strongly for Scottish independence . This is despite the fact that public spending per head, on which poorer people depend more, is already higher in Scotland than it is in England.

It is £10,152 per head in Scotland, as against £ 8,529 in England. On those figures, complete fiscal would worsen the position of poorer Scots.


I believe these vote reflect a sense of not being listened to, of not being respected, than they do a demand for particular constitutional or institutional changes. 

Do Scots feel respected, and listened to, in UK? 

Do working class voters of the National Front, UKIP, and the  Tea Party voters feel respected by metropolitan elites?

I fear the answer in “No” in all cases


Fear of what may happen in the future drives people in the direction of populist solutions, and parties.
States have made health promises and pension promises that will become unaffordable, as the proportion of the population that is elderly grows. Meanwhile, many private  pension schemes are underfunded.

Another pervasive fear is that of redundancy in mid life. In such a circumstance, it is difficult to know what new skills to go for, and it is equally difficult to move to another city to find work, after a certain age.


These fears feed anti immigrant sentiment.
Immigration disturbs bucolic image some people have of their ideal national environment….forgetting that, if they actually lived in their ideal environment, they would probably find claustrophobic and boring.

There IS  also competition for low skilled jobs, and immigration DOES drive some wage rates down
But automation and labour saving devices are devaluing all forms of low skilled work anyway, and probably are more important drivers of income inequality,


The growth in inequality in incomes is also a factor in the growth in support for populist parties.

Inequality is driven by many factors.

It is driven by technology . Technology replaces low skilled workers, while increasing the rewards of the higher skilled people, or insiders, who control the technology.
One should not ignore the importance of celebrity in causing inequality. Celebrity brings disproportionate increases in relative income. Celebrity footballers, and celebrity CEO’s, represent the same phenomenon. A firm’s stock price is driven partly by the reputation of its CEO and that means a well known CEO can command a higher salary package.
Inequality is also driven by access to financial leverage, and assets that can be used for leverage. Thus high financial sector incomes evoke particular concern.
These are all issues that need to be dealt with by national governments, through the tax system.

But they should not be used to justify turning away from the EU or from the benefits that globalisation has brought.


We are not going back to a world of Empires in which Europeans, or people of European ancestry, could make the rules of the game to suit themselves.
We can perhaps limit the pace of immigration, but we cannot stop it.
So we need updated civic education of ourselves, and of immigrants to our shores, on questions like

“What does it mean to be British?”
“Can one be British, Scottish and European all at the same time?”
“What does it mean to the Irish and European, but of African ancestry?”
” What are the values that underlie these statements?” 


We also need to work out the practical implications of reciprocity as a principle of international relations.

Let me illustrate this by reference to debates now taking place in the UK.

If EU citizens immigrating to UK to work are to have restricted access to state benefits, how might that affect the entitlement to health service of the 2m UK citizens living in other EU countries? 

If the UK want access to an EU Single market to sell its goods and services does that means accepting  common EU standards for those goods and services….even fiddling rules on thing that seem  not to matter…unless we all recognise everyone else’s standards regardless which could be bad for consumers?

In particular, the UK wants a single EU market for services…..but services are provided by people, and these people may need to travel to another country to provide those services….which gets you back into the immigration debate 
If Britain wants a veto on certain EU laws, rather than have them decided by majority, 27 other countries will also have to get that veto too.

If , as some Conservatives propose, the UK withdraws from the European Convention on Human Rights, what effect will that have on the hard won agreement on policing in Northern Ireland, which depends on access for police complainants to the EHCR? Is the plan just to take England out of the EHCR, or to take Northern Ireland out as well?


If the EU is to survive, EU citizens need a sense that they can cast a vote to change the men or women at the top in the EU, in the same way as they can change the people at the top in Dail Eireann, in Westminster, in Birmingham city council, or in their local tennis club.

It is not that citizens want to get into the details….but they do want a vote on the EU’s direction of travel

Globalisation has been taking key decisions above the level of individual states for a long time. That is nothing new. But the time has come to make it more democratic.

The International Telegraph Union dates back to 1865

The International Court in the Hague dates back to 1945

Traditionally the  rules, governing bodies like these,  were negotiated in private in the form of inter state Treaties, between diplomats, and later interpreted by judges. 
Elected people were often only involved at end of process in saying a simple YES or No to result, by ratifying the Treaty or not. 

The EU is different.

In the EU, politicians in the Commission initiate laws, and politicians in the European Parliament and the Council decide if these laws will come into effect.

In this sense, the EU is MORE democratic than virtually all other international organisations in the world….but it’s not democratic ENOUGH

I believe the direct election of the President of the European Commission by the 500 million people of the EU, not simply by the 28 heads of EU Governments, is needed. 

Only in that way will we  create a well informed democratic EU public opinion. That would be the best answer of all to the populists.


Gorbachev’s advisor Alexander Arbatov, said , in 1989 at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, to a western diplomat

“we have done you the worst of services, we have deprived you of an enemy”

Since then, the lack of perceived external threat has led to weak economic management in Europe, to an unnecessary war in Iraq,  to increasing debt,  to weakened military strength, and to the making of insincere promises that could not be fulfilled when to going got tough.

Now, that period is over. 

We now see, thanks in part to ill considered promises of eventual NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, that those countries have suffered pre emptive annexations of parts of their territory by force by Russia. The UN Charter and the Helsinki accords on territorial integrity of states have been binned.

In Eastern Ukraine we are now witnessing I recently heard a US general describe as “a new kind of warfare”.

Meanwhile, the growing strength of China’s navy distracts US from Europe, and European and US interests are diverging because the US is  becoming energy self sufficient, whereas Europe is not.

And productivity in Europe is lagging.

According to the OECD, EU labour productivity is  growing at 0.6% pa, while productivity in the rest of the OECD is growing at  1.2% a year.


Rather than contemplating separatism, Europeans should be thinking about our precarious position in the 21st century world, and uniting to do what we can do about it.


Today, Scotland is going to the polls to decide if it wants complete independence.

Whatever decision they make today, the Scots are exercising full national self determination. That came about  because, for the past number of years Scotland has had a Home Rule Government, and a Home Rule Parliament, and a majority in that parliament was later democratically won by a party that wanted complete independence. That could have happened in Ireland too…..90 years ago.

The experience of Home Rule, of making their own laws in Scotland, of administering their own services and making their own policies, has given the Scots the self confidence, and the international credibility, to freely consider moving now to full independence. All that  has happened in Scotland without loss of life, without the bitterness of war. 

Ireland was given a similar opportunity 100 years ago this week, to move  through Home rule, towards ever greater  independence, gradually and peacefully,  when Home Rule for Ireland became law on 18 September 1914.  Ireland could have followed the same peaceful path towards independence that Scotland is now considering taking.

We won that opportunity for ourselves 100 years ago, and won it by parliamentary means and without the loss of a life.

We chose, for various reasons which I will explore, not to follow that path. But the fact that we won the opportunity to take it, and won it by parliamentary methods, should be celebrated  by this parliamentary democracy, 100 years later.

Given that this IS a parliamentary democracy, one of the oldest surviving ones in Europe, one that did not descend into totalitarianism during the twentieth century, it is important that we should  celebrate parliamentary achievements. Remembering democratic, non violent achievements, should be part of the civic education of our nation.

The passage into law of Home Rule for Ireland was, as I have said, an Irish parliamentary achievement without equal in the preceding 200 years.

It granted Ireland its own legislature, something denied it since 1800. It was of comparable importance to the Land acts, also achieved by diligent parliamentary work, and peaceful agitation, and by the same people. 

I welcome the fact that the Minister for Foreign Affairs will be delivering a speech, later on today, on Home Rule at a locally organised event in Wicklow, which I will attend. I commend the work that has been done by the Government to draw attention to the introduction of the Bill and its passage through various stages in Parliament, and the contribution to the restoration of John Redmond’s grave in Wexford.

Given that the Home Rule Act of 1914 provided Ireland with a right, a right that had been denied for the previous 114 years, the right to an Irish legislature meeting in Ireland, its centenary today should  be specially marked today in our legislature, in Dail and Seanad Eireann.

The 1916 rebellion,  the warfare of the 1919 to 1923 period that it engendered, and indeed of the Great War as well, are all to be commemorated.  That is good. But if  these commemorations  are not seen to be accompanied by a balancing and equally high profile commemoration of peaceful parliamentary achievements, like  Home Rule,  that would glorify military activity, at the expense of  less glamorous, but  contemporarily more relevant, peaceful parliamentary struggle.

As it is today, Ireland in 1914 was a divided society, an emotionally divided island, with a majority (mainly of one religious tradition) favouring a large measure of independence, and a strong minority (mainly of another religious tradition) opposing this, and favouring integration in the United Kingdom.

In emotionally divided societies, or islands, it is vital that commemorations be used  to learn useful contemporary lessons from history, not merely to celebrate one protagonist or another, or to freshen up old divisions. 


The enactment of Home Rule may have been a purely peaceful achievement, but this is not to suggest that those who obtained it, the Irish Parliamentary Party of John Redmond and John Dillon, were mild mannered and non confrontational.

Two previous attempts to obtain Home Rule had failed, one because it was defeated in the House of Commons, and the other because it was vetoed in the House of Lords. 

To get Home Rule onto the statute book, the Irish Parliamentary leaders had to get a majority for Home Rule in the House of Commons, and simultaneously to get  British constitutional arrangements changed to remove the House of Lords power of veto. There was a permanent majority against Home Rule in the House of Lords, and the veto could only be removed with the consent of the House of Lords itself. 

Furthermore, in the House of Commons, the Liberal party, which had been committed to Home Rule under Gladstone, had moved away from that policy under his successors, Lord Rosebery, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman and Herbert Asquith. In order to secure Home Rule by peaceful and constitutional methods, the Liberal Party had first to be won back to a firm commitment to pass Home Rule.

In a masterly exercise of parliamentary leverage and constructive opportunism, Redmond and Dillon achieved both goals, in a very short space of time. 

They withheld support for the radical 1909 Budget, unless and until there was a commitment to remove the Lords veto and introduce Home Rule. They also, in effect, exercised pressure on the King, because the Lords eventually only passed the legislation to remove their veto in response to the threat of the King swamping the House of Lords with a flood of new Lords.

All this was achieved from the position of being a minority party in the House, albeit a party whose votes were needed to avoid a General Election which the Liberal Government feared they would lose.  Considerable brinksmanship was needed, because, if the Liberals lost the election, the cause of Home Rule would also be lost. Redmond and Dillon did not have all the trump cards. They just played the cards they had very well indeed.

On the other side of the House, the Irish Party faced a Conservative Party that was so determined to force a General Election that they were prepared to incite Ulster Unionists to military insurrection, and to connive with elements in the British military to ensure that the insurrection would not be prevented.

In Britain itself, Home Rulers had to overcome deep anti Irish, and (as Ronan Fanning has shown in his book Fatal Path) anti Catholic, sentiment is some sections of opinion – including within the Liberal Party.
Financial gaps also had to be bridged. Unlike Scotland today, Ireland in 1914 had no oil.

Between 1896 and 1911, British Government expenditure in Ireland (including recently introduced old age pensions) had increased by 91%, whereas revenue raised in Ireland had risen by only 28%. That enduring gap between spending commitments and revenue explains why the Irish Free State had to take a shilling off the old age pension in the 1920s.

In face of all these difficulties, getting Home Rule onto the statute book, without the loss of a single life, was a remarkable parliamentary achievement.

If commemorations are about drawing relevant lessons for today’s generation from the work of past generations, this remarkable exercise of parliamentary leverage, to achieve radical reform against entrenched resistance, has much greater relevance, to today’s generation of democrats, than does the blood sacrifice of Pearse and Connolly.

The subsequent turning away, after 1916, from constitutional methods has obscured the scale of this parliamentary achievement. There may have been a fear that too much praise of the prior constitutional achievement would delegitimize the subsequent blood sacrifice.


The Woodenbridge speech of John Redmond on 20 September 1914, urging Irish men to join the Allied cause in the Great War that had broken out six weeks previously, must be seen in the context that Home Rule had been placed on the statute book just two days previously.

Home Rule was law, but the implementation of it was simply postponed until the end of what most people expected would be a short war.

Redmond’s address to the Volunteers at Woodenbridge was not a mere reciprocation of the passage of Home Rule. He also wanted to show that the passage of Home Rule had inaugurated a new and better relationship between Ireland and its neighbouring island.

He wanted to show everybody, including Ulster Unionists, that things had changed. As he was still aiming to persuade Ulster Unionists to come in under Home rule, he felt he needed to do this if there was to be any chance at all that they would voluntarily do so. He wanted to show to Ulster Unionists that, in some matters, Unionists and Nationalists were now “on the same side”.

Let us not forget that Irish men had fought in the British Army in the Boer War, notwithstanding Redmond and the Irish Party’s opposition to that war, so those many of those who volunteered to fight in what turned out to be the Great War, would  have  done so anyway, whether Redmond asked them to do so or not.

Suppose Redmond had given a different speech in Woodenbridge.  Suppose , Home Rule having been passed into law two days before, Redmond had instead vocally opposed recruitment, what would have happened then?

He would have handed a powerful argument to those who had opposed Home Rule all along, namely that a Dublin Home Rule Government could not be trusted not to undermine Britain’s international position at a time of great danger.
Carson and Craig, and their allies in the British Conservative Party, would have felt themselves entirely vindicated in their opposition to Home Rule.
The Woodenbridge speech also stood on its own merits. The unprovoked invasion by Germany of a small neutral country, Belgium,  in order better to be able to attack France, was something that many people at the time, and since, regarded as profoundly wrong and deserving to be opposed.

That said, the Great War was an avoidable tragedy, and a failure of statesmanship. But it was not a failure for which Redmond or the Irish Parliamentary Party were responsible. They had to deal with the situation as they found it.

It is right to commemorate the Irish dead of the Great War, but Home Rule’s passage into law is a separate matter.

It should be commemorated on its own merits, and separately. It is not mere addendum to the remembrance of the Great War, but a unique parliamentary achievement.

Parnell did not get Home Rule onto the statute book. Redmond and Dillon did, 100 years ago this week.

O Connell did not succeed in re-establishing by law an Irish legislature. 100 years ago this week, Redmond and Dillon did


Some have criticised the limitations of the Home Rule Act of 1914. These limitations can be explained by the fact that, although the possibility of temporary exclusion of some Ulster counties had been conceded by the time the Home Rule finally came to be enacted, the Act had been framed from the outset in terms that could apply to all 32 counties of Ireland , where there was a Catholic majority, so safeguards, and  understandable limitations,  had to be inserted to protect or reassure the  Protestant minority in Ulster and elsewhere in Ireland.

For example a provision was inserted whereby the Home Rule Government “could not endow any religion”. This safeguard was actually a worry to the Catholic hierarchy, who feared it might affect existing state funding for Catholic teacher training colleges. 

For a similar reason, marriage law was to be kept at Westminster, because the Vatican’s Ne Temere decree of 1907 on mixed marriages had caused alarm among Protestants.

Likewise, limitations on the imposition of tariffs and duties were needed to reassure the large industrial sectorin Ulster that their interests would not be sacrificed to the needs of the predominantly agricultural interests that dominated the rest of the country. 

As it transpired, these safeguards were not enough. Ulster Unionists continued to insist on exclusion from the whole system, and backed their demand with the threat of force. They were encouraged in this by the Conservative opposition in Westminster.

If John Redmond had wanted to maximise the powers of the Home Rule Government in Dublin, he could, early on, have accepted the exclusion from Home Rule of the Ulster counties where there was a Unionist majority. This is what the Irish state subsequently did in practice. Even the Conservatives would have given Redmond such a deal. Under such a deal, the exclusion might have been limited to four Ulster counties – instead of six, as in 1921.

But Redmond was unwilling to accept any open ended exclusion from Home Rule of any part of Ireland. In that sense, John Redmond was more idealistic than the republicans and physical force men who came after him.

In January 1914, at the height of the Ulster resistance to Home Rule, John Redmond was speaking at a meeting in his constituents in Waterford about the difficulty of winning over Ulster Unionists, and a heckler shouted up at him, “We are as well off without them”. Redmond replied indignantly, “No, we are not. That is an absolute fallacy”

The American historian, Joseph P Finnan in his book John Redmond and Irish Unity, 1912-1918 said that Redmond prized Irish unity more than he prized Irish sovereignty. He added
“Although he (Redmond) acceded to demands for temporary exclusion of northern counties, he never gave them up for lost. The Irish revolutionaries who negotiated the Anglo Irish Treaty of 1921 did just that. Even the anti Treaty forces led by de Valera based their objections on the loss of the republican ideal, not the loss of the northern nationalist population.”

The Cork-based supporter of the Irish Party, J.J.Horgan, said much the same thing in his 1949 memoir, Parnell to Pearse. His book concludes with these words: 

“We constitutionalists had been wisely prepared to make large concessions in order to avoid the division of our country which we believed to be the final and intolerable wrong.  The price of our successors’ triumph was Partition … They sacrificed Irish unity for Irish sovereignty .”

A sovereign 32 county State was not achieved in 1921, but the “freedom to achieve freedom” for 26 counties – no more than was available to Redmond in 1914.

Those who came after Redmond, using the gun, did not bring unity any closer than he did.

Perhaps the two communities on this island are too different, in their sense of deepest identity, for that. 


Charles Townsend put it this way in his book Easter 1916: “The Rebellion played a part in cementing partition”
Indeed, the words of the Proclamation were literally “oblivious” of the problem of resistance in parts of Ulster to any form of rule by Dublin, notwithstanding  Pearse’s professed admiration for the UVF arming itself to resist  even a modest measure of Home Rule.

The 1916 Proclamation said it was “oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, who have divided a minority from a majority in the past” 

In effect, they did not think the Ulster Unionists had minds of their own, but were simply tools of the British. Apart from rhetoric, no attempt was made to persuade them of the merits of an Irish Republic , nor thought given to how such persuasion might be done.
 Whereas Redmond had tried to talk to Carson and Craig, the 1916 leaders were “oblivious” of them.


When the decision to use physical force was made by the leaders of the IRB and the Irish Citizen Army in April  1916, Home Rule was already law. Its implementation was simply postponed for the duration of the war, but there was no doubt but that it would come into effect once the war was over, either for the whole of Ireland, or, more likely, for 26 or 28 counties.

The irreversibility of Home Rule is well illustrated by a comment that had been made by one of its staunchest opponents, the Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law.  He had admitted

“If Ulster, or rather any county, had the right to remain outside the Irish Parliament, for my part my objection would be met”.

This comment shows that Home Rule could easily have led to an ever larger measure of independence for the rest of Ireland , so long as some Ulster counties were allowed to opt out of it.

As to the irreversibility of Home Rule, the Lloyd George Coalition Government’s   re election manifesto in the December 1918 Election stated bluntly “Home Rule is upon the statute book”. There was thus no going back on Home Rule as far as the conservative and Liberal politicians who wrote that manifesto were concerned.
My belief is that, at that time, instead of launching a policy of abstention from Parliament and a guerrilla war, Sinn Fein and the IRA should have used the Home Rule Act as a peaceful  stepping stone to dominion status and full independence, in the same way as Treaty of 1921 was so used, but only after so much blood had been shed.   They might not have got more than 28 counties, but there would have been no more bloodshed.

WAS 1916 A “JUST WAR”?

Many of the 1916 leaders were familiar with Catholic teaching on what constitutes a just war. One of the criteria is that war should be a” last resort”. Another is that it should have a reasonable chance of success.
The fact that Home Rule was passed, would have come into effect at the end of the Great War, and would have been a platform for further moves to greater independence, shows that use violence in 1916 was not a genuine last resort, and does not meet that criterion for a just war.

Moreover, the 1916 leaders accepted they had no chance of military success when they marched out on Easter Monday 1916. 


Another important context in which the 1916 decision  must be judged is the Great War,  which was then in progress, in which thousands of Irish soldiers were fighting on the Allied side when the GPO was occupied by force.

The 1916 leaders explicitly took the opposite side in this war to their fellow Irishmen in the trenches. In proclaiming the Republic, the 1916 leaders spoke of their “gallant allies in Europe”. These allies were the German Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Austro Hungarian Empire.  Although their immediate target was Britain, those, against whom the Irish Republicans went to war, included Belgium and the French Republic, whose territory had been pre-emptively invaded, and occupied by force, by Germany.

The 1916 leaders were not neutral. They were taking the side of Germany , Turkey and Austria-Hungary and said so in their own Proclamation.

This greatly weakened the position of Irish negotiators, including Sean T O Kelly, who sought to get a hearing at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference for the case for Irish independence. The 1916 leader’s decision had put them on the wrong side, and had made them “allies”, in the words of the Proclamation, of the losers in the Great War.

This was complicated by the fact that the Irish Republic had already been declared any way, regardless of the Peace conference. The Irish delegation was not making a claim, it was looking for a retrospective vindication of its declaration of a Republic

As Townshend put it in his other book The Republic: the fight for Irish Independence:

“The Peace Conference would now be asked not to investigate and adjudicate on a national claim, but to recognise an already existing Republic, approving an act hostile to a great power [Britain].”

This would have been hard for Woodrow Wilson to do, even if he wanted to.
The fact that a Republic had been declared anyway in 1916, and again in 1919, made winning support for any subsequent compromise, short of the ideal Republic of 32 counties, much more difficult, as the Treaty negotiators were to find.

It would have been wiser to have had patience, avoided violence, and adhered to the Home Rule policy, and to constitutional methods. 


I concede that I do not believe that the Home Rule policy would have led to a united 32 county Ireland in the medium or perhaps even the long term – although John Redmond and his colleagues would probably not have accepted that at the time. 

The opposition to being under a Dublin Home Rule Parliament was so strong among Unionists in Ulster that, no matter how hard the Home Rulers might have tried to persuade them, at least four Ulster counties would have stayed out of the Dublin Parliament. 

The leader of the Irish Party, John Redmond himself, told the House of Commons that

“no coercion shall be applied to any single county in Ireland to force them against their will to come into the Irish Government”. 

This was a sensible policy.

Irish attempts to coerce Northern Ireland into a united Ireland, whether by the attempted incursions across the border in 1922, by the propaganda campaign in the late 1940s, or by IRA killing campaigns in the 1950s and from 1969 to 1998, have all failed miserably, because they were based on a faulty analysis of reality.

Likewise attempts to persuade the British to do the job for us, and to use their military and economic force to coerce Unionists into a United Ireland, were also failures.

Only when all forms coercion towards a united Ireland were abandoned, did progress eventually become possible, in the 1990s. 

John Redmond’s policy was one of attempting to persuade Unionist to accept a united Ireland, and his support for recruitment to the British army in 1914 was part of that.

But, under the Home Rule arrangement, if Ulster counties opted out, they would have continued under direct rule from Westminster. 

There would have been no Stormont Parliament, no “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people”, no B Specials, no gerrymandering of local government. 

Stormont was not part of the Home Rule arrangement and it came about largely because the abstention of Sinn Fein from the Irish Convention, and of its MPs from parliament after the 1918 election, created an opening for it. There was then no Irish nationalist voice to object to it in the corridors of power. 

Under Home Rule, there would have been continued, but reduced, Irish representation at Westminster, so any attempts to discriminate against the nationalist minority in the excluded area of Ulster would have been preventable in a way that was not possible under the eventual settlement.  Stormont was left to its own devices after 1921. 

The constitutional Home Rule policy would thus have been much better for Northern Nationalists than the policy of violent separatism was to prove to be. Northern Nationalists probably sensed this. While the rest of Ireland was plumping for Sinn Fein in the election of December 1918, the electors of West Belfast chose to return Joe Devlin of the Irish Party to represent them in preference to Eamon de Valera of Sinn Fein.  

The Home Rule path would also have been better because it would have saved many lives throughout Ireland. People who died between 1916 and 1923 would have survived and would instead have contributed to Irish life, rather than to Irish martyrology. 

All things being equal, in my opinion, living for Ireland is better than dying (or killing) for Ireland.

I would emphasise that the waste of these lost lives needs to be weighed, and weighed heavily, in the balance against any supposed advantages secured by the use of force. 

There is a moral issue here. Irish people today take the ending of life seriously.  1916, and the subsequent campaigns of violence it inspired, involved ending thousands of lives. Any commemorations should take those valuable lost lives, all of them, into account,
Consider the dead for a moment. 


256 Irish civilians died during the 1916 rebellion, some at the hands of the rebels and many as a result of British artillery designed to expel the rebels from the positions they had occupied. 

These civilians did not have any say in the IRB/Citizen Army action, and would all have lived if that action had not take place. They did not volunteer for the sacrifice they made.

We know of the rebels who died, and their deaths have been commemorated  by the Irish State. Each year the Irish army has a Mass to pray for the souls of those who “died for Ireland“ in 1916.  It is unclear to me whether this formula includes the civilians who did not decide to put their lives at risk “for Ireland”, but who were killed anyway because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

153 soldiers in UK Army uniforms were killed in the fighting in Dublin in 1916. Of these, 52 of the dead were Irish. These are the names of some of these Irish soldiers, many home from the trenches on leave, who were killed: Gerald Neilan from Roscommon, Francis Brennan from Ushers Island in Dublin, Abraham Watchorn from Rathvilly Co Carlow, John Brennan from Gowran Co Kilkenny, John Flynn from Carrick on Suir and many more. I hope the 100th anniversary of their deaths will not be forgotten the year after next.

Three members of the unarmed Dublin Metroplitan Police were killed, and 14 members of the RIC, including Patrick Leen from Abbeyfeale and Patrick Brosnan from Dunmanway. 

These Irish men were acting on the orders of a duly constituted Government, elected by a Parliament, which had already granted Home Rule to Ireland, and to which Ireland had democratically elected its own MPs.  Did not these men “die for Ireland” too? How should they, and their sacrifice, be remembered.  These are questions which need to be answered between now and 2016.

Consider also the dead of the War of Independence from 1919 to 1921, and the dead of the civil war of 1922 to 1923, for these deaths flowed, in some measure, from the initial decision to use force in 1916.

1200 were killed in the war of 1919 to 1921. Many of these were civilians who had not chosen the path of war. Others were policemen, who had chosen that vocation as a service to their people, and not to become participants in a war. Yet others were supposed or actual informers on behalf of either side.
 If, in response to the appeal of the “blood sacrifice” of the 1916 leaders, the executions, and the gross mishandling of conscription by the British Government at the beginning of 1918, the Home Rule party had not been rejected by the electorate in the General Election of December 1918 in favour of a policy of abstention and separatism, Home Rule would have come into effect, and all those people would have lived.

Many of those who died were very talented people, whose lives and service were a huge loss to this country.

Many families of minority religions were made to feel unwelcome in Ireland as a result of the violence, and some left.  Southern Ireland became a less diverse society as a result of the policy of violence initiated by IRB and the Citizen Army at Easter of 1916.

Around 4000 Irish people were killed in the Civil War. Like those who were killed in the 1916 to 1921 period, many of these were amongst the brightest talents of their generation. Why did they die?


Violence breeds violence. Sacrifice breeds intransigence. The dead exert an unhealthy power over the living, persuading the living to hold out for the impossible, lest the sacrifice of the dead be perceived to have been in vain. In that sense, the policy of violence, initiated in April 1916, contributed to the Civil War of 1922-3. It did so in this way. The  earlier deaths of those who occupied the  General Post Office in 1916, seeking to achieve a 32 county Republic, made it so much harder for those on the anti-Treaty side, who occupied the Four Courts in 1922, to accept anything less than a 32 County Republic. They did want to appear to “betray” the dead by accepting any compromise. Unfortunate, but understandable.

Betrayal of the sacrifices of the dead is one of the most emotionally powerful, and destructive, accusations within the canon of romantic nationalism. It exercised its baleful influence in recent times in delaying the abandonment by the IRA of its failed and futile campaign to coerce and bomb Unionists into a United Ireland.  

I believe Ireland would have reached the position it is in today, an independent nation of 26 counties, if it had stuck with the Home Rule policy and if the 1916 rebellion had not taken place. Indeed, we might have been a state of 28 counties. All that was needed was a deal on Ulster.
Like all counter factual historical arguments, this proposition is impossible to prove.

But, once the Ulster question had been resolved by some form of exclusion of areas with a Unionist majority, the path towards greater independence was wide open. The policy of the Irish Party in the 1918 Election was dominion status and I believe they would have achieved it. Perhaps they would not have achieved it by 1921, as was achieved in the Treaty of that year, but it would probably have been achieved by the end of the 1920s, probably from a Labour Government whose policy already envisaged dominion status for Ireland.

Certainly many of the parties in the Home Rule Parliament would have been demanding greater independence. Irish politics would not have stood still after Home Rule, as some historians seem to assume. Redmond’s party might have won a majority in the first Home Rule Parliament, just as Scottish Labour got the majority in Scotland’s first Home Rule Parliament. But subsequent elections might have seen more independence minded parties win majorities in Dublin in the 1920’s or 1930’s, just as happened in Scotland under Home rule 80 years later.

Once Ireland had its own legislature in Dublin , it would have been able to avail of the progressive loosening of ties within the Empire, in the same way as the Irish Free State was able to do , for example through the Statute of Westminster of 1931. Ireland could have followed Canada , South Africa and Australia’s path.

Some might argue that security and defence considerations would have made this unlikely. I doubt that.

If a Conservative dominated Government was willing, in 1938, to hand over the Treaty ports to Eamon de Valera, who, 22 years previously, had been a declared ally of Germany, it would surely have been willing to place as much trust in a Home Rule Government in Dublin, whose political antecedents had stood with Britain in its moment of greatest threat in 1914.

To say that the 1916 Rising was a mistake is not to deny the heroism or sincerity of those who made the mistake, or the heroism of those who followed them. Hindsight enables us to gain a perspective that may not have been obvious at the time.

But the reality is that, in 1916, Home Rule was on the statute book and was not about to be reversed. If the 1916 leaders had had more patience, a lot of destruction could have been avoided, and I believe we would still have achieved the independence we enjoy today.

Address by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, at 10am on 18 September 2014
at a seminar organised by the Reform Group, in the Royal Irish Academy, Dame St., Dublin
marking the exact centenary of the passage into law, for the first time ever, of an Irish Home Rule Act  (18 September 1914)

Address by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, at 10am on 18 September 2014
at a seminar organised by the Reform Group, in the Royal Irish Academy, Dame St., Dublin
marking the exact centenary of the passage into law, for the first time ever, of an Irish Home Rule Act  (18 September 1914)

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