Ignoring a national transformation

Ignoring a national transformation Sinn Féin founder Arthur Griffi th with his successor as Sinn Féin president, Eamon de Valera.
100 years on…
This paper almost wholly glossed over the end of the home rule party, writes Gabriel Doherty

 

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the judgement of The Irish Catholic on the outcome of the 1918 General Election, as revealed in its edition of January 4, 1919, was that the verdict of the people, as given through the ballot box, was almost completely ignored.

Arguably the most radical ever transformation in the national political scene was, to all intents and purposes, overlooked in its columns, which were instead devoted almost entirely to matters beyond Ireland’s shores, and in several cases to topics discussed at great length over previous weeks.

It was, of course, not difficult to ascertain the reason for this turning of an editorial blind eye to what were by far the most important items of news for the week.

The paper’s preferred political policy – home rule – had been virtually extinguished in terms of parliamentary representation, the party that had once held Westminster to procedural ransom now so diminished as to be left with a handful of adherents, lacking both a leader (John Dillon having been routed in his home constituency by de Valera) and, apparently, a raison d’etre.

In its place stood Sinn Féin, the bustling, impatient, self-confident new kid on Ireland’s electoral block, who acknowledged only one solution to the country’s woes: the sovereign, independent Republic declared during the 1916 Rising in which so many of its leaders and activists had fought, and which The Irish Catholic had (in common, it should be said, with almost all of nationalist Ireland) initially condemned.

Of course the paper did not, could not, simply turn its back on the election, unpalatable as the results were, but its comments on it were brief to the point of being curt – almost as if the sense of shock at seeing the home rule cause humiliated by the champions of an Irish Republic, and the re-election of the war-time coalition for which it had no good words to say, had deprived the editor of the power of intelligent speech.

Such observations as he could bring himself to make were contained in a single, 150-word, editorial side-bar, which conceded the “sensational nature” of the election but failed to even attempt an analysis of its broader significance.

It simply noted that “the overwhelming victory of Lloyd Georgism in England and of Sinn Féinism in Ireland casts upon the leaders and adherents of each responsibilities of the greatest magnitude, because it shows that popular expectations of great things to come have been aroused, and these it will be an onerous task to realise”.

This was undoubtedly true, as far as it went, and there was a superficial cleverness in equating the unwelcome developments on both sides of the Irish Sea, but given the historic nature of the election, more in-depth commentary was surely called for.

A topic that had been extensively aired in the previous editions – the exclusion of Pope Benedict XV from the peace negotiations in Versailles (the formal commencement of which was then a fortnight away) – received another outing, but on this occasion an interesting new angle was developed.

*****

Ever since the Armistice on November 11 the paper had expressed satisfaction at the fact that Germany had experienced as close to total defeat as could be imagined, short of the military conquest of the country.

Now, however, a certain air of regret was beginning to emerge, to the effect that the victory may have had a down-side. The Allies had, the paper lamented, ignored the papal pleas for peace during the war (in 1915 and especially 1917), just as they were now ignoring the contribution that the Vatican could make to post-war reconstruction.

The inference was clear: the unnecessary and counter-productive deaths, and the catastrophe of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, that were the fruits of the final year or so of the war, might now be repeated (possibly even exceeded) if the benign influence that the Pope could exercise over the diplomatic process was excluded from the public sphere.

Indeed, the editor went further and argued that the same type of secret diplomacy as had produced the war in the first place was even now repeating itself, as evidenced by Benedict’s isolation, notwithstanding Woodrow Wilson’s plea for open discussion of such matters.

Such a line of criticism, of course, ignored the fact that the papacy itself had engaged in similar ‘behind-closed-doors’ conduct for many centuries, but more important were its ramifications for the war’s standing from an ethical perspective. The Irish Catholic had endorsed John Redmond’s view that the Great War was ultimately a moral struggle, a ‘just war’ of democracy against authoritarianism, with specific reference to the rights of small nations to be free of external interference in their internal affairs.

But if the conflict was now deemed to be the outcome of a type of diplomatic style common to all belligerents, then its moral justification disappeared, the deaths of those Irishmen who had volunteered for service in the army had been in vain, and the home rule cause was further discredited.

It was a disturbing thought, but one that was daily becoming more apparent, as the preparations for Versailles moved into ever higher gear.

The paper’s main editorial singled out a speech made by the French Premier Georges Clemenceau – a figure far from favour in the eyes of the Church for his record on the separation of Church and state in his country. In the course of this address Clemenceau made clear his repudiation of the central plank of Wilson’s post-war proposals – the League of Nations – in favour of the more traditional system of military alliances deployed in support of a ‘balance of power’.

In the eyes of the paper such a strategy would simply repeat the mistakes of the recent past, with the likelihood that a similar catastrophic outcome in the near future was readily predictable.

Bearing in mind the undoubted connection between the Versailles settlement and the rise of Nazism in Germany in the early 1930s, it was a prescient observation.

Apart from the election the principal item of domestic news referred to a resolution of the difficulties that had engulfed Belfast gaol just prior to Christmas. In a nutshell the crisis revolved around the classification of a republican prisoner by the authorities as a criminal rather than de facto political offender – and the consequent disruption caused to the prison regime by his comrades.

The main point of the article devoted to the issue was to praise Archbishop MacRory, who (along with the Lords Mayor of Dublin and Belfast) had acted as interlocutor between the authorities and the prisoners. Interestingly, however, the article plainly described the republicans as “political” rather than “criminal” prisoners and was at pains to stress that none of them had been guilty “of any offence involving moral turpitude”. In its eyes they were, thus, entitled to the type of ameliorations of the normal regime that had been introduced following the death of Thomas Ashe in the Autumn of 1917.

It was an interesting straw in the wind that suggested that the paper was, after all, beginning to reconcile itself to the new political reality – and this process of accommodation would involve its movement towards the republican position, with, as yet, unknowable consequences.

Gabriel Doherty teaches in the Department of History, UCC, and is a member of the Government’s expert advisory group on the Decade of Commemorations.

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