The choice to use force in 1916 must be subjected to severe reappraisal, writes John Bruton
The commentator, Greg Daly, concludes an article in last week’s edition of The Irish Catholic, on the 1916 Rebellion in Dublin, with the words: “The Rising may have been immoral and anti-democratic, but to suggest that Ireland would have achieved peaceful independence without it is surely a fantasy.”
This comes close to saying that the ends achieved, justify the means used. If that is what is meant, I must respectfully disagree with Greg Daly. Good ends would not justify immoral means.
If so, the use of such means in 1916 should not be celebrated, as if they represent the core values of the Irish people.
Now I would like turn to the second part of Greg Daly’s thesis, which describes as “fantasy”, the view I and others have put forward, that through Home Rule, Ireland could have proceeded peacefully to full independence.
The principle of Irish legislative independence for Ireland was already won from the Imperial Parliament, in September 1914, by the passage into law and signature by the King of the Home Rule Bill. That happened before any rebellion here and, as Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law subsequently admitted, there was no going back on Home Rule. The point of principle was won without a shot being fired.
The only open question was whether or how Home Rule might apply to Antrim, Down, Armagh and Derry (and perhaps Fermanagh and Tyrone). I agree fully with Greg Daly that it is likely the Home Rule government would not have got jurisdiction over all those counties.
But if that exclusion was once accepted, there was no barrier in the way of the rest of Ireland progressively winning ever greater degrees of sovereignty. That could have been achieved by peaceful negotiation, if it was what the voters of the 26 or 28 counties wanted.
Indeed, some of the exclusions from the powers of the Home Rule Administration were only put there in the first place, to reassure Ulster Unionists, when it was envisaged, as in the original Home Rule Bill, that all 32 counties would be fully included from the outset.
The same principle of legislative independence, conceded to Ireland in September 1914, was conceded to Canada, Australia and other dominions. We know now that they all proceeded to full sovereignty, without the suffering and bitterness of war.
The path of violence, started upon by Pearse and others in 1916, and followed from 1919 to 1923 by his imitators, was traversed at a terrible price.
Given the value Catholics place on each human life, those who take life have the primary burden of proof to discharge. It was for them to prove that no other way was open. I believe that test was failed.
Home Rule, already law, could have led Ireland to the same position that Canada enjoys today, if that was the wish of the Irish people. I say this for a number of reasons. The Home Rule Parliament would have been elected under the same wide suffrage that applied in 1918. Sinn Féin would have won significant representation in the Home Rule House of Commons, as would the Irish Labour Party and the group led by Tim Healy. All three groups would have pressed for ever greater degrees of independence, going beyond dominion status. But they would have done so, without taking lives.
It would not be credible to say that the UK would have denied to a Home Rule Ireland, the powers it freely granted to dominions like Canada and Australia, under the Statute of Westminster of 1931, if that is what the Irish people really wanted.
The suffering of the War of Independence was not needed to achieve dominion status.
In the 1918 election, the policy of the Irish Party, led by John Dillon, was dominion status for Ireland. The policy of Sinn Féin, led by Eamon de Valera, was complete separation of the 32 counties from the UK on the basis of the 1916 Proclamation.
Sinn Fein won the election but, after all the killing in the War of Independence, all they ended up with was dominion status, the very policy of their defeated Irish party opponents.
Therein lay the roots of the Civil War from 1922 to 1923. After all the deaths of the War of Independence, the separatists had to accept, in the Treaty, the exact policy of their democratically defeated Irish Party opponents of 1918.
It is said that Home Rule would have left British forces on Irish territory. But so also did the Treaty of 1921. It left the UK military in control of ports in Irish territory.
But these ports were handed back in 1938, through entirely peaceful negotiation. The fact that those ports could be won back by purely peaceful negotiation on the eve of World War II, shows that the limitations on Home Rule could also have been negotiated away, peacefully.
If a nation is to learn anything at all from history, it must be willing to examine, using all it knows now, what might have happened, if a different historical choice had been made.
The choice to use force in 1916, and again in 1919, must be subjected to severe reappraisal, in light of what we can see might have been achieved, without the loss of life.
John Bruton is a former Taoiseach and author of Faith in Politics.