Thursday, October 21, 2004

Nelson's Column

I seldom write about The National Question, seeing as how I have no first hand experience of Northern Ireland (Being Dublin-centric, I always feared that going further north than the end of the DART line at Howth, I'd encounter polar bears and igloos) but Kevin Myers' Irishman's Diary on Thursday deserves a comment.

I've heard those I suspect are sympathetic to the Falls Road Rifle Club and Marching Band refer to the "West Brit's Diary", but perhaps labelling his newspaper slot Nelson's Column might be a bit more elegant.

Myers wrote:

Foreign readers of Irish newspapers must marvel at the degree to which we still argue about the unchangeable past, even in tones of contumely and disdain. Why? We are not alone in bearing a legacy from the period 1914-1922.

Russia was exiled into a living, 70-year hell. Germany, we know about. The British empire, seemingly enlarged by the Great War, was in fact desperately and terminally wounded. I doubt if their journalists spend so much time picking over the bones of 90 years ago.

Actually, "picking over the bones" hardly describes the tone in which much of the retrospection is done - vide Prof John A. Murphy's recent sneering reflections in the Sunday Independent on the Reform Movement's perceptions of the history of the 20th century.
However, perhaps he intended to entertain us when he paraphrased Yeats: "the real 'no petty people' of modern Ireland were the small tenant farmers of Ireland who refused to be cowed by a tyrannous Protestant gentry, magistracy, yeomanry and church establishment." Modern Ireland? Tyrannous Protestant what? The majority of magistrates by 1916 were Catholic, with the gentry - including the Catholics - doomed by the land acts which had already transferred 11 million acres to smallholders. The yeomanry had been disbanded long before any of the signatories of the Easter Proclamation had even been born, and James Connolly was the only one around for the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland - though since he was aged one, in Edinburgh, he is unlikely to have nurtured a strong personal grievance over its numerous tyrannies. So much for the history of "modern" Ireland - not from some ranting Shinner, now, but from the Emeritus Professor of Irish History at UCC.

In this newspaper last Saturday, Martin Mansergh dismissed those (which includes me, and - heavens - might even mean me) who question the assertion that the 1918 election validated the 1916 Rising by reference to the percentage vote rather than the number of seats won. This was "risible sophistry", he declared. No other democratic contest is so judged, he insisted.

Given that only last month, Myers was reminiscing in the Saturday weekend pages about how a family connection with a lecturer in UCD got him admitted there as academic charity case, saving him from having to continue working on a bin lorry in Oldham after failing his A-levels, maybe the advantage of credentials and knowledge weigh heavily in favour of Professor Murphy and Dr Mansergh, but the Irish Times never worries about providing a platform for the semi-educated.

Quite so. But the point stands. Sinn Féin won only 48 per cent of the votes cast. The overwhelming majority of seats it won would in any democracy certainly entitle it to form a government. But how does a 48 per cent vote for Sinn Féin constitute a post facto validation of the 1916 Rising? We who would say it doesn't deserve a more cogent response than the disdainful accusation of "risible sophistry".

Implicitly, he declared that those who can find no moral argument in favour of the use of force in 1916 (and afterwards) are accepting the moral right of the British to rule over Ireland. Not so. The defining feature of constitutional nationalism is its moral argument: that people have a right to depart in peace from a polity which they had never agreed to join in the first place, and such a polity has no moral authority to impose its rule upon its unwilling subjects. However, patience by the latter should not be mistaken for assent - by either the ruler or the impatient.

This was John Redmond's position. No one maintains that the Home Rule Bill of 1914 satisfied existing nationalist demands, or that it would necessarily have led down the gloriously primrose path of Irish history to this present republic. We cannot know what would have resulted without the 1916 Rising - against the very government which had legalised Home Rule - but we are entitled to doubt whether the virulent poisons which it introduced into Irish life, with the thousands of deaths and the economic ruin that followed, were all worth it.

Moreover, we wonder if the moral authority which entitled Constance Markievicz to murder the unarmed Constable Lahiffe in St Stephen's Green and Sean Connolly to blow the brains out of the similarly defenceless Constable O'Brien at Dublin Castle is the very same authority which authorised the Provisional IRA to levy its 25-year war from 1970 onwards. Because if that's so, we're not dealing with history any more.

Historical lies largely come about not by ignoring or distorting facts in the way of David Irving, but through anachronism. Israelis and Palestinians never tire of calling each other Nazis. We heard the poisonous rhetoric of modern Serb nationalists, who invoked the defeat by the Turks at the Field of Blackbirds in Kosovo in 1389 to justify genocide against their Muslim neighbours.

In Ireland, the same tiresome argument rolls endlessly on. The men of 1916 were heroic martyrs and so their modern imitators are national exemplars. No, the provos are callous killers, so the Anglo-Irish war was the handiwork of bloodthirsty sectarian terrorists.

Martin Mansergh pointed out that the French and the Americans do not question their historic days - the Boston tea party or the storming of the Bastille, say. Well, they should. France suffered a greater demographic catastrophe in the quarter-century after 1789 than it did in either world war; and that Bastille Day is still celebrated today is merely proof of how cretinous even the most intelligent and sophisticated people in Europe can be.

The American war for Independence was a large-scale forerunner of Ireland 1919-1922: it was primarily a civil war, with catastrophic divisions between families and regions, resulting in many forgotten atrocities and large-scale expulsions of loyalists.

So there is in fact every reason for Americans today to question the wisdom of their revolution - not least for its evil impact on the slave trade and the catastrophic consequences for the native Indian populations, both of which unrevolutionary Canada largely avoided.

Americans, being much more senisble than Myers, venerate their revolutionary generation, except for fringe nuts like Zinn and Chomsky. The world doesn't, by and large, stand in gratitude for the inspiration provided by Canadian ideals of liberty, although Mark Steyn is now making up some of the deficit. In fact, with virulent seperatism in Quebec and a politer form of the same in British Columbia, Canada is, as any Anglophone Canadian would admit, something of a one-teabag-for-the-teapot nation.

Certainly, English journalists don't passionately discuss their "Glorious" Revolution, which remains set in an intellectual stone, though there was absolutely nothing glorious about it. And for most of the Irish people it was an unmitigated calamity: like the American revolution a century later, it liberated British colonists to do their uninhibited worst upon the natives.

History is the stuff of modern journalism in Ireland, because we can still feel its pull beneath our keel. We, more than most, know that to ignore our past is to be doomed to renavigate its lethal riptides yet again.

Myers and Reform are missing the point. If there's one identity that's been exhaustively explored in literature, it's that of the Anglo-Irish, and fairly uniformly it documents the experience of estrangement from England. Between Dean Swift's exile from metropolitan politics and Beckett's alienated exile Murphy, rejection by Britain was painfully apparent. Few of the Anglo-Irish took the option of throwing in their lot with the low church Scots-Ulster people. Unlike in the USA, where Irish immigrants had both the sheer weight of numbers and a convenient anti-British revolutionary iconography to cling to, the Anglo-Irish are more adrift.

Whatever misunderstandings and tensions exist between London and Dublin, the Anglo-Irish persona is not the bridge on which they can meet. Even less so is this the case for those in Ulster who wish to remain British.