And After?

Here a book specially designed to trace "How the Irish Revolution Came About" might well come to its rightful end. From untold depths of degradation the young men of the Sinn Féin cycle had raised the Irish cause to a pinnacle at which the most powerful empire on the earth, its Coercion Ministers, its iron captains, and both Houses of its Imperial Parliament solicited almost on bended knees Ireland's acceptance of a Treaty, which to a more down-trodden generation might have seemed fabulously favorable. The first phase of the Revolution finished in all but unspotted glory with the Truce of July 11th, 1921. The Truce which was the work of the soldiers marked the truly memorable date rather than the Treaty of December 5-6, 1921, which was the work of the politicians. For, to the humiliation of English statesmanship and of Irish "Constitutional" methods as well, be it recorded, the Treaty could never have come up for discussion at all were it not for the heroic fortitude and the sheer military genius with which the Truce was first achieved by a host of unknown striplings, flinging themselves unterrified against the seeming omnipotence of English militarism in its most barbaric mood and in its most intoxicated hour of triumph. It was the last of the soldiers' part of a gallant and united war.

Would there not however be a certain heartlessness in concluding without some endeavour with the best skill at one's command to lift a corner of the black curtain behind which the dread drama of the future is in preparation? In all the revolutions of men success brings its sacrifices of broken friendships, which passed through the fire and were not burnt, of illusions that seemed certitudes, of dreams that were divine. The faith, that wrought miracles in the obscurity of the Catacombs, showed a less holy flame when the miracle-workers marched out to fame and power in the Golden House of the Caesars. Que la République etait belle—sous l'Empire! has its meaning for others than the cynics of the Third Republic. The mere ugliness which is everywhere apt to overspread the first radiant face of armed Revolution was not to be avoided in Ireland. Of poisoned words and vindictive passions—of deeds on both sides to make honest Irish, blood run cold—there was enough and to spare, but of greed or self-seeking as little as may consort with the motives of mortals. Taunts of "place hunting" against unfortunate Ministers every day or night of whose lives might be their last, in their efforts to preserve what they regarded as the only semblance of settled government left to the country, were not more absurdly unjust than the counter-charge that the many thousands of outlaws hunted and maligned who were couching in the winter hills wasted with hunger and exposure were simply pursuing a lucrative means of livelihood as they trod an unregarded Calvary for their Idea.

The rudimentary facts of the case are not so simple as they are too often taken to be. The divine right of the Provisional Government rested on the following proposition: "The outstanding fact is that the Free State Government is the Government selected by the will of the people of Ireland and consequently it is the lawful government." That is the very claim on which the case for unquestioning submission to the Free State Government topples over. There is no such "outstanding fact." There was no such pronouncement of the clear will of the people of Ireland— not even of "Southern Ireland," which alone was permitted any voice.

A Treaty which was only sanctioned by a majority of one, of its five Irish signatories, and by a majority of seven in the Dáil even under the dishonest threat of the return of the Black-and-Tans, can hardly be said to carry in itself the sacredness of an irrevocable decree by a nation. The Provisional Government which was the outcome of that narrow vote based all its authority upon the claim that it represented the vote of an overpowering majority of the Irish people—it was put as high as 95 and even 99 per cent.—at the General Election of June, 1922. That claim is however a notoriously untenable one. True majority rule was represented at the General Election by the Collins-De Valera Pact solemnly recommended to the country by the unanimous resolutions of the Dáil and of the Ard-Fhéis—that is to say of the men who alone had made any Treaty possible. The painful violation of that Pact at the last moment all but completely mystified and nullified the vote of "Southern Ireland" at the General Election, sending back a decreased number of Free Staters as well as a more largely decreased number of Republicans and substituting for the defeated candidates of both sides a new body of Labourites and nondescript Independents, whose appearance was the only genuine resultant of the General Election. The General Election was in reality a stalemate. Those who stirred up the repudiation on the eve of the polls of the modus vivendi unanimously endorsed by the Dáil and by the Ard-Fhéis were the men who set the Civil War, with all its horrors, going.

It was idle to claim any divine right for a Government proceeding from a confusion such as this—a Government which although forming the largest group was in matter of fact a minority Government, since even in an expurgated Dáil from which the 34 elected Republicans were excluded the Government thus apotheosised could only command a majority of 4 on a Vote of Censure upon an issue so vital as their policy of reprisals and must have been promptly turned out of office had the Republicans been admitted to the Division Lobby. When a Government with this precarious title began—even before summoning the newly elected representatives of the people at all to ask their sanction—by bombarding the Four Courts and starting the Civil War the night after receiving something like an insolent order from Mr. Churchill it is not difficult to understand, why the claim of such a Government to a sanction from on high in the name of "Majority Rule!" was scouted by the young soldiers of Ireland who were old enough to remember that the same cry of "Majority Rule!" raised largely by the same people was responsible for all the disasters of Ireland in the previous fifteen years—the killing of Land Purchase, the Partition of the country and the universal shipwreck from which nothing but the Revolution now anathematised could have saved the Irish cause.

The ease with which Mr. Winston Churchill's heavy artillery enabled the Free State Generals to dispose of military operations on the grand scale, led the Irish and the English papers to form a ridiculously erroneous estimate of the insignificance of the resistance before them. Months after the capture of the "last rebel stronghold" and of another last and still another last had been proclaimed until men's hearts were sick of the boast, the Generals of the Free State found themselves in the same position in which General Macready had been twelve months before: every town and village was theirs and their foe was more unseizable than ever. They were cutting unresisting waters with an irresistible sword, but the waters were not dispersed. When President Cosgrave assured the English public through the Times that he was only dealing with "a handful of boys and of neurotic women," he was making a boast which only the isolation from public opinion in which he and his government were compelled to live could excuse. The "handful" multiplied to above ten thousand men in the Free State jails and still enough of the "handful" remained outside to make the task of an army of fifty thousand trained men a heartbreaking and futile one. If the Free State Ministry could succeed in drowning resistance in a river of young Irish blood, their troubles would be only thickening.

It is no less true that the proceedings of the Republicans or of those who disguise themselves in their garb have often reached a pitch of folly that might well be mistaken for dementia. Their criminal recklessness of the life and limbs of non-combatants, their forced levies, their bomb-throwings and burnings and railway raids in every form of blind destructiveness that could imperil the people's means of communication, their sources of employment and even their daily food—shook the foundations of morals and civilisation to their base and might well seem to justify the sacred fury with which any suggestion of a truce with such men on any terms short of unconditional subjection or extermination was denounced as treason to the first principles of society. Recriminations are natural enough in the first heat of hasty and uninformed judgments on both sides. But recriminations are a poor game when it has become a question of splitting Ireland from top to bottom by new chasms of hatred among her sons, which generations may labour in vain to reclose. A cause capable of inspiring a hundred thousand young Irishmen to the most amazing and tenacious sacrifices, month after month, in the face of overpowering odds, cannot be a wholly guilty one, and assuredly is not to be disposed of by words of wrath any more than by the volleys of the firing platoons to which the official reprisals were entrusted.

The Civil War began as soon as the General Election, which was neutralised by the violation of the Collins-De Valera Pact was over, and is dragging along ever since. It is to be lamented that every effort of honest public opinion to stop the war before the mischief should be irreparable, was overbearingly and even flippantly stamped out. "These peace resolutions are all moonshine!" were the first words of the Democratic President of the Free State in a manifesto waving aside a long series of conciliatory resolutions beginning with the unanimous appeal of the Senate, which he had himself just nominated as the Second House of his own Parliament, and followed by the resolutions of all the National Corporations and most of the County Councils in "Southern Ireland"; and there were other jibes and threats still more unworthy of his high station. "The Bulletin" which is supposed to be the official organ of Mr. De Valera responded with the no less irrational ultimatum "Ireland shall not enter into the British Empire so long as there is a man of us left alive."

To stand up against stiff-necked unreason on both sides such as this, the only friends of peace who have hitherto presented themselves with a dog's chance of being listened to are "The Old I.R.A. Association" of men who fought in the Anglo-Irish War, up to the Truce of July 11th, 1921, and since the Civil War broke out have refused to imbrue their hands in brothers' blood on either side. As I write, their claims, too, to interfere are being insidiously counterworked and that largely by those who were never militants in the united Sinn Féin movement and would not be too disconsolate to see it going to pieces through intensified dissensions. Whether "The Old I R.A. Association" may not fail of a hearing as sadly as all that went before them have failed who shall dare to think unlikely? They have at least the advantage that in no other direction can any prospect of an enduring National Pacification be now discerned. They are believed to represent the cream of the fighters who were ready for any feat for Freedom's sake except fratricide; and they if any have the commission to carry their appeal at need from the half a dozen men on each side who forbid negotiations to the overwhelming majority of a people, who abhor a war of partisans and can see nothing but bankruptcy and red ruin before the country unless it can be stopped.

What are the definite proposals which press for a solemn reconsideration by all thinking Irishmen?

The first is that an Irishman is not necessarily an hostis humani generis who looks for the revision of a Treaty which substitutes for Ireland a Nation a State shorn of Ireland's richest province, laden with a liability of unknown extent for England's National Debt of seven thousands of millions, and forbidden any thought of National Independence with bullies' threats which no other Dominion would brook.

The next is that to make a Truce possible at all it must be an Unconditional Truce. Standing upon the punctilio that the Republicans must first surrender their arms is to condemn the country to the last extremities of an unforgivable blood feud in order to gratify militarist vanity in an infinitely paltry matter. There is no answer to the argument that if Mr. Lloyd George had been equally strait-laced in his first demand for the surrender of arms there could have been no Truce and consequently no Treaty to put the Free State Ministers in power.

If to such an accomodation the existing Ministry interpose an irrevocable Veto there seems to be no alternative but the obvious one of a change of Ministry, accompanied, as it must be, with the corresponding resignations of such of the Republican leaders as may be found to be on opposite grounds equally irreconcileable. The two sets of changes would not involve more than a dozen individuals all told, and of these none but General Mulcahy on the one side, and Mr. De Valera on the other were personally known even by name to the mass of the Irish people up to a few months ago. A hard saying it may be and disagreeable for many. "All things are hard" quoth Heavenly Wisdom itself. There is an undoubted element of cruelty in the proposition, but it demands no greater measure of self-sacrifice and for the highest patriotic motives than their past and even present sufferings of mind and body must exact. In the last resort public opinion "must be cruel only to be kind" if the nation is not to slip down from danger to destruction. The decree sic vos non vobis would simply come to their turn as it did to all others who went before them.

And it is not as if a change of Ministry might imply a rupture with England, as might have happened before the Treaty was the established law of both countries. It can only be altered by slow and deliberate negotiations, English and Irish. The choice of Ministers is a purely domestic concern with which a man of Mr. Bonar Law's shrewd sense would not think of meddling. Indeed the fact that it is Mr. Bonar Law and not Mr. Lloyd George or Mr. Winston Churchill who is now to be dealt with is a sufficient reminder that every one of the five British signatories to the Treaty has since been dismissed from office without causing the smallest jar in the relations between the two countries.

Both parties to the Civil War have suffered so atrociously without any compensating results that, the blessings of peace and good fellowship once restored, it is not conceivable that men with a spark of patriotism or human reason should replunge the country into the abyss of fratricide. Undoubtedly other problems will arise with the Truce. The fact has to be faced that there cannot be any tolerable peace until it is made possible for the Republicans freely to re-enter the public life of the country, and this will only be practicable if the oath of allegiance which at present shuts them out from the Parliament of the Twenty-Six Counties is abolished.

You and I may here again insist upon the pettiness of the point in dispute and argue that sworn allegiance to a regime "as by law established" does not forfeit men's freedom to work for a very different one "as by law disestablished," and did not prevent the sworn lieges of Charles I. and James II. from taking away their crowns—in one case "with a head in it." What matters is that the Republicans do not regard it as a petty point, but, from quite respectable scruples of conscience, would no more take the oath than they would surrender their fire arms. But again the difficulty is not so insurmountable as it may look. Mr. Bonar Law is too frank and fearless a statesman not to perceive that the only link left between the two countries and the strongest of all links is the laws of Nature, which continue to bind the two nations together in the most vital of their material interests, with stronger than hoops of steel, and if there was no other difficulty about getting the Republicans to labour for their ideals in the Dáil with all the comely arts of persuasion, he would not I think waste much energy in holding on by a form of oath already watered down to a consistency almost contemptuous of the royal personages whom it was framed to honour.

An emergency will arise at once in which the Free Staters, Republicans and Socialists among whom the Irish Parliament of the future must be divided would find an ample field for united action. The Boundary Commission is foredoomed to failure. It cannot give effect to Mr. Winston Churchill's undertaking to transfer "vast territories" from "Northern Ireland" to "Southern Ireland," in virtue of which the Treaty was really signed. The failure will constitute an essential breach of the Treaty on the part of England, and all Irish parties will be equally keen in resenting and resisting it. In claiming satisfaction and a revision of the Treaty by friendly negotiation with England, and if needs be by an appeal to the League of Nations where it will henceforth meet England on an equal footing, the Free State will run no risk of a break with England, much less of a war for the reconquest of the country, such as demoralised the timorous and the war-sick in their first judgment of the Treaty of Downing Street.

There can be no finality in the paltry expedients of politicians for human government. The original constitution of Canada—even the broader one suggested by Lord Durham—had to be altered from the first clause to the last before it reached its present glorious evolution. The first step was that the province of Quebec once separated as "Northern Ireland" is now separated had to be restored. The far scattered legislatures of Australia were federated into the Commonwealth without friction not to speak of war despatches from the Colonial Office. The breakdown of the English machinery for working the Treaty as between North and South would justify and indeed necessitate its amendment, and not in reference to the breach of the Churchill agreement alone, but in the direction of making Ireland's freedom from compulsory Imperial contributions as complete as Canada's own.

England cannot long stand over a state of things in Ulster in which the Catholic and Sinn Féin minority are left without a single representative in the Belfast Parliament and have been shamefully gerrymandered out of the Corporations, County Councils and District Councils even in counties where they have been proved to be a majority of the taxpayers and rate payers; in which Cardinal Logue cannot cross the frontier for a visitation of his archdiocese without being held up and offensively searched, and is forbidden liberty to say his midnight Mass at Christmas in the Cathedral of St. Patrick; and in which Republican soldiers are secretly flogged with the cat o' nine tails in the prisons of the Partitionists. The sternness with which the Provisional Government have endeavoured to enforce the Treaty to its last letter at the cost of the most drastic severities against their late comrades of the I.R.A. gives them an unanswerable claim for the assistance of England in revising the more insufferable parts of the Treaty.

There would be no need of invoking the intervention of the League of Nations in any spirit of hostility, nor, if the two Nations are wise, of invoking it at all. If the demand of Ireland took the form of a Referendum of all Ireland on the simple issue: Partition or No Partition? it is not easy to imagine how a British Prime Minister of wisdom is going to resist it. Alsace-Lorraine is no more populous and is very much less wealthy than Ulster. It forms less than one-eighth of the area of France, while Ulster covers more than a fourth of the area of Ireland and has for unnumbered centuries contributed the richest pages of her history. England which did not grudge two millions of British lives to restore Alsace-Lorraine to France, has at the same moment quadrusected Ireland in affecting to restore her freedom. This cannot be. No British statesman in his senses can be under the delusion that an Ireland admitted to the Comity of Nations can ever submit to be ravished of her Alsace-Lorraine without an outbreak of Irish Irredentism which will command the universal sympathy of mankind. No Prime Minister could fail to understand that British opinion alone would promptly square accounts with him, if he set out upon a barbarous reconquest of Ireland by conscripting an army of not less than 200,000 men and at a cost of not less than £300,000,000 to be added to the financial burdens under which the most patient taxpayers of Britain are already bowed to the earth.

Provided always that Irish statesmen are large minded as well as unshakeable. Provided always that they give up once for all the urchins' joy of twisting the British Lion's tail, and that in their dealings with their Northern fellow countrymen they weary not of proving to them that the National Fraternity to which they invite them is the heart's desire of a generous and noble Nation, and that they abate not a jot of the special rights and guarantees everybody is now willing enough to concede if they are to be the means of assuaging the forebodings of Ulster. Upon these conditions a Referendum—"Partition or No Partition?"—to be voted upon by the entire population of Ireland—(which it must be remembered has never yet been tried)—would to all human certainty yield such a majority for National Unity—even within the Ulster borders—as must conclude all further controversy on the matter for civilised men. An Ireland thus re-united in the plenitude of her all-embracing liberties would not be long in healing her wounds and might fare forward to the future without an enemy in the world to dim the lustre of her aspirations as "a Nation once Again."


January 10th, 1923.

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The Irish Revolution

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William O'Brien was a County Cork M.P. who participated in the negotiations for Home Rule in Ireland. In this account, first published in 1923, he provides an insight into the politics and politicians of the time - John Redmond, John Dillon, Arthur Griffith, Sir Edward Carson, Bonar Law, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, etc. - and gives his analysis of the origins of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Irish Civil War. From his own perspective, O'Brien was very much anti-Partition, and was evidently frustrated at the failure to give adequate reassurance to the Northern Unionists.

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