Alex Salmond has an ingrained habit. He blames “Westminster” whenever he can.
He did so in his Monday page in the Courier, published on March 28, a century, to the day, after the Easter Rising in Dublin. He said: “While the rebels of 1916 had no popular mandate for their actions, it can be argued that for much of the previous century, England had the full opportunity to react appropriately to the parliamentary and impeccably constitutionalist tradition of leaders such as Parnell and Redmond. Westminster singularly failed to do so.”
But the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Fenians were not “impeccable constitutionalists”. Founded in 1858, their principles were that nothing could be achieved for Ireland by constitutional methods, and that British power must be overthrown by force. They believed in the absolute divine right of nationality, and had no programme of reform – the time for that would come when independence had been won.
It is said that the violence of their doings in England, particularly the Clerkenwell explosion on Friday 13 December 1867 when their attempt to free a Fenian prisoner from gaol using a barrel of gunpowder hidden in a costermonger’s barrow killed 12 people living in tenements close by, stimulated Gladstone to introduce measures to change things in Ireland. These began with the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland (1869), land reform (1870, 1881), and home rule ( a bill defeated in 1886 by dissident Liberals, leading to the fall of his government, and another bill, defeated in 1893 by the House of Lords).
The home rule bill introduced in 1912 by Asquith met with implacable opposition from Ulster, with the ceremonial signing of “Ulster’s solemn League and Covenant” on September 28 that year in Belfast clearly signifying in its words the real prospect of rebellion against constitutional authority. Implementation of the bill was put on hold by the outbreak of war in August 1914. By then the landlord-tenant problem had been resolved, making the sale of estates almost universal.
Failed response to famine
Alex Salmond mentions none of these things. And “Westminster” had paid attention to Ireland before Gladstone. Catholics had been emancipated in 1829 and University Colleges in Cork, Galway and Belfast established with state funding in 1845.
There is a consensus, however, that its response to the Great Famine (1845-52) was bad. It responded in the way it had to previous smaller famines in the west of Ireland (precedent normally governs the official response to a crisis) but was overwhelmed by the devastation wreaked by a brand new invader, Phytophthora infestans, the cause of the blight which killed the potato on which one third of the Irish population was absolutely dependent, and by concurrent lethal epidemics of typhus, relapsing fever, dysentery and cholera. Inadequate government policies were driven by the notion that events were a visitation from “Providence”, and they were supported by strong beliefs in self-reliance and in free trade. The big irony is that Phytophthora came into Ireland from North America and then drove the reverse emigration of embittered survivors, laying the foundations for Fenianism.
Alex Salmond lists the events leading to independence as the election victory of Sinn Fein in 1918, the guerrilla war of independence, the peace treaty, and then the foundation of the Free State and partition. He doesn’t mention the civil war between the pro-and anti-treaty parties. Official casualty figures have never been published, but reasonable estimates indicate that as many died as in the guerrilla war. Prisoners were regularly executed in retaliation for assassinations. It is unlikely that the start of the war, the shelling of the Four Courts at 4.29am on 28 June 1922, or its finish, the order by the IRA on 23 May 1923 that guns should be dumped, will ever be celebrated; the two sides live on today as the main political parties in the Republic.
Dark side of nationalism
Ireland is difficult for the SNP, not just because of the decline and death of the Celtic Tiger, and the realisation that, as an emanation, Alex Salmond’s “arc of prosperity” (Ireland, Iceland and Norway) turned out to be as evanescent as the Northern Lights, but because it exemplifies the dark side of nationalism. Attempts to sanitise events by writing out the civil war – when the Irish were much nastier to the Irish than the British had been in 1916 – don’t convince. And the Scottish connection is strong. When I lived in Glasgow in the 1970s the commonest graffiti were “1690” and “FTP’, reminders that the 1912 Ulster Covenant was based on the 1643 Scottish Covenant, which for religious reasons established a political and military alliance with the Parliamentarians in the First Civil War.
And it is clear that the SNP version of independence does not follow the Irish model. It will keep the monarch as Head of State (over which the Irish fought their civil war), will keep the pound (the Irish joined the euro, freeing them from the Bank of England but then inducing the wreck of their own banks), and will eschew neutrality by joining NATO and getting the direct protection of its nuclear umbrella (which Ireland gets in spite of its official position).
But because Ireland has so far set the only precedent for separation from the union, consideration must be given to the observation of its first President, Douglas Hyde, about anglophobia; that there is a hibernian habit of denouncing England while imitating everything English. Not only that, but the single transferable voting system with multi-member constituencies was introduced by Westminster in 1920 – and is still in operation in the Republic. The Royal Dublin Society and the Royal Irish Academy still call themselves “Royal”. And although Public Inquiries are termed Tribunals, the involvement of barristers (who in Dublin still “take silk”) makes them as expensive as they are in the UK. Tribunals have been busy investigating the corruption stemming from clientelism and the pork-barrel politics that have been side effects of the party system, particularly the long dominance of Fianna Fail (which came out of the losing side in the civil war), the proportional representation system, the steady leaching of funding and power from local authorities, and massive centralisation.
Lessons for Scotland today, and for the future? Yes, of course!