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Redmond’s place in our national story is as important as any
Redmond inspecting Volunteers, c 1914-1915 Photo: National Library of Ireland

Redmond’s place in our national story is as important as any

By Rónán O’Brien

There is no statue of John Redmond in our capital city. There is no street named after him either. His mentor, the man to whom he stayed loyal while others did not, Parnell, enjoys both. And a square as well.

Redmond’s tenure as leader of the Irish Party far exceeded that of Parnell. Arguably some of its finest achievements – the completion of land transfer from Gall to Gael being the most obvious - took place under his leadership. So why is Redmond ignored and Parnell not?

The straightforward answer is that there were no Redmonds to succeed Redmond. The process of constructing monuments to Parnell began soon after this death.  When Redmond died 100 years ago this year there were no successors.  His party had been supplanted by Sinn Féin. His successor as leader, John Dillon, was of Redmond’s generation.

But it would be naïve to think that is the full explanation.

Parnell’s tragic death and usurpation as leader of the Irish Party can be incorporated much more readily into our national narrative than that of the man who called for volunteers for the British Army in a war that everybody now believes to have been tragically unnecessary.

No Redmondite explanations on this score cut the mustard today. Yes, he may have opposed the Boer War.  Yes, he was offended by German atrocities against Catholic Belgium. Yes he believed, as many did, that the war would be of short duration. But ultimately his sense of Irish nationalism was more consistent with Ireland being involved in the evolution of the British Empire into a Commonwealth of Nations than the complete separatism that followed.

100 years on none of these Redmond positions has a contemporary resonance. Popular history has decided that Redmond was wrong on all counts. That Parnell may have made similar errors matters not. 

Rather, Parnell worked with Fenians. He was done down by the Catholic Church, which has only enhanced his reputation as that of the Church has declined. Against that background, his elitist and landlord sensibilities can be overlooked. His early death protected him from the kind of compromises that define Redmond.

Parnell’s fall then is central to his incorporation into the state’s founding narrative. Had he succeeded in securing Home Rule that narrative would have been different and not dominated by the physical force tradition. Parliamentarian though he may have been, his Joycean fall represents an adequate bridge between 1867 and 1916.  A stopping point on the separatist journey.

Sitting in front of the statue of Charles Stewart Parnell on Parnell Street in Dublin in 1969. There is no such monument to John Redmond in the Capital City. (Image: National Library of Ireland, WIL 50[12])

Could it have been different had Redmond succeeded in having Home Rule implemented in 1914? Who knows? It was a worthy discussion point on the centenary of the Act in 2014 but little more. You cannot prove a counterfactual. And notwithstanding the fact that the centenary of the 1916 Rising has been judged to have been a great success, modern and inclusive as compared to 1966, this success has further crystallised the events of 1916 as the foundation stone in the nation’s story. Nothing before matters too much.

So for those who argue for greater recognition for the man deemed vanquished by the men of 1916, the challenge is considerable. Theirs is the national story. And for those that argue for greater state recognition of Redmond’s it means at least a partial rejection of the state’s founding narrative. 

Former Taoiseach John Bruton believes that 1916 was unnecessary and impeded the implementation of the Home Rule Act. He believes that Act would have delivered a better outcome than that which prevailed after the War of Independence. He believes it would have meant a less divided nation on the island. That may have been true but it ignores a critical point. Home Rule was dead by 1916.

A longer term exposition of the Home Rulers case is more compelling. 

The argument goes that the cause of Ireland’s independence was afforded greater impetus by democratic political organisation in the centenary preceding 1916 than through the violence of 1916 itself or that of 1867 for that matter. Without O’Connell, Parnell and Redmond the success of the 1916 to 1921 period would have been impossible. 

Further, it could be argued that the separatist tradition relied on the constitutional tradition to build deep seated support for greater independence or autonomy from the UK than it was capable of developing on its own – a tactical point recognised for example by John Devoy when he agreed the New Departure with Michael Davitt in the 1880s. That without the Home Rule Crisis of 1912-14 the Easter Rising itself makes no sense. It was through the Home Rule crisis that the Irish people had been brought to a point of reasonable expectation regarding their national ambition and by 1916 that ambition had been thwarted. Ultimately the breaking point proved to be the reaction of the British authorities to the Rising as much as the Rising itself.
But even at this point the strength and endurance of the democratic or constitutional tradition is under appreciated. The first actions following the suppression of the Rising of those involved in it were not to initiate further insurgency, but to establish a political party and contest and win democratic elections against the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP).

It is the case that we often draw too clear a dividing line between our parliamentary and republican/insurgent traditions. We know ultimately that our republicans adopt constitutional methods. But likewise, our constitutionalists and parliamentarians are happy to absorb and make their own the republican/separatist tradition, for example, in 1898 on the centenary celebrations of 1798. Similarly, the Home Rulers enjoyed the support of former Fenians in their parliamentary ranks as late as the Edwardian era. Nor were the Home Rulers immune from military posturing themselves in 1914. 

Enrollment certificate for Wexford 1798 Centenary Association. (Image: National Library of Ireland, POOLEWP 2788)

Likewise, in the land war campaigns the parliamentarians may not have instigated violent action but undoubtedly were aware, and dependent upon, the role violence played in consolidating support in the community. There are undoubtedly constitutional and physical force traditions in Irish nationalism but we sometimes exaggerate the cleavage between the two. In bridging these traditions in the manner in which they did, the IPP prefigured the easy absorption into their constitutional narratives by latter day republicans in all our parties, Sinn Féin now included, of the violent tradition.

So notwithstanding the dominance of the physical force tradition in our national story, if people allude to Ireland’s liberation campaign in the modern era as being a straight line from 1798 to 1916 through 1803, 1848 and 1867 then they are almost wholly wrong. The strength of Ireland’s campaign for greater freedom was ultimately its depth not its vanguard. O’Connell’s mass meetings, Davitt’s land campaign, Parnell’s parliamentary belligerence and Redmond’s manipulation of parliamentary numbers created expectations which fuelled the ambition of the post 1916 period.

Yet despite this success we remain a divided nation. The primary difficulty with our national story is its failure to deliver a united nation. Irish republicanism is defined by its inability to reach beyond one national and religious tradition. That failure continues to this day. This dichotomy crystallises in 1916 and thereafter when the extent of separation from the United Kingdom surpasses in importance the struggle to retain political unity.

1916 was the point, albeit an unconscious one, at which the concerns of northern nationalists would no longer act as a break on the aspirations for freedom for the rest of nationalist Ireland. That which hamstrung Redmond so completely fell away as an issue. So much so that the issue hardly figured at all when the Anglo-Irish Treaty was debated.

This is not to say that Republican Ireland consciously departed from the aspiration to unity or the inclusion of northern nationalists and even unionists in the Irish nation. The opposite is the case. So sacred was the anti-partitionist cause in post independent Ireland that it achieved a Holy Grail status. But, it is equally a fact that it simply ceased to be a matter of practical politics.

As a result, with the benefit of hindsight, the last person on the nationalist side to deal with the political implications of forging the two distinct traditions in Ireland into a single national polity was John Redmond. 

And for this, despite his sins, Redmond deserves, recognition.  Fail though he may have done, the problem he encountered was so all consuming that it not only remained unresolved but in reality was not addressed in any serious fashion for a further 50 years. Redmond was done down by a problem we have to this day failed to resolve. Indeed for the first fifty years post-independence it was a question we ducked as we went about the important work of state building.

It took John Hume to take up the cudgel, initially in a six county context, of thinking through the lessons that should have been learnt from Redmond’s failure. It is seldom that Redmond is mentioned in the constitutional nationalist lineage from O’Connell to Hume for the reasons cited above, though Seamus Mallon has done so on occasion, yet the line between the problem that brought Redmond down and that inherited by Hume is absolutely clear.

John Hume and Seamus Mallon. This photograph accompanied an RTÉ Archives feature marking the occasion of the resignation of John Hume as SDLP leader in 2001. Access the page here: (Image: RTÉ Archives)

That is not to say Redmond’s record on the issue is without fault. He and his followers ignored the threat of partition and division for far too long. 

Given that the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union had been established as far back as 1886, it is incredibly naïve not to have taken Unionist objections to Home Rule more seriously in advance of the catastrophic events of 1912. But neglect them the Home Rulers did. And when the scale of Ulster resistance became clear, there was little that Redmond could do. 

The British establishment, particularly the Tories, undoubtedly used the crisis for domestic political gain but the temptation to blame what happened on them, or even on the Liberals for their failure to confront the problem more robustly, seems misplaced. There is nothing we know about the subsequent history of Northern Ireland, unfortunately, which suggests that had the issue been pushed between 1912 and 1914 the consequences would have been anything short of catastrophic.

But if Redmond had one additional instinct in addition to the ostrich approach of ignoring it, it was to deal with the issue generously. 

He sought to assuage unionists that Home Rule Ireland would be a generous place for them. He conceded temporary exclusions confident in his optimism that the operation of Home Rule Ireland would be such that northern and unionist resistance would be assuaged. In short, he was prepared to tolerate temporary partition in the sense that he saw it as the best defence against permanent partition. His historian supporters, such as his biographer Dermot Meleady, suggest that his instinct was to go even further but that he was prevented from doing so by the make-up of the party he chaired as much as led.

This desire forced him into positions, most notably during the war that have forever ostracised him from his fellow Irishman, safe in the territory of the independent state. 

Tragically his view that were the nationalist and unionist Irish to fight together that they would be more minded to governed together became a personal tragedy. The death of his more liberal and more modern-minded brother Willie Redmond on the Messines battlefield in 1917, the first battle in which Unionist and Nationalist fought side by side, was practically a death blow. 

That Redmond’s hopes were optimistic was undoubtedly true but they were borne of two distinct phenomena – a passionate belief that Irishmen, unionist and nationalist, were Irishmen first and foremost, and secondly, that they could be united voluntarily in the same polity should not be seen as a forlorn hope.

His failure to resolve this issue handed his successor republican movement a fait accompli.  Partition was inevitable and being so the compromises necessary to prevent or mitigate it were unnecessary too. The new Ireland was free to be Gaelic, Catholic and Green without recourse to worrying about anything but a small minority with a different identity. And as for a united Ireland, well, the rhetoric didn’t require compromising compromises.

The victims in all this were northern nationalists who were caught in the gap between a nationalist rhetoric that espoused a single national identity and their harsh reality, and unionism, stripped of Carsonite liberalism, treated them accordingly. Both Redmond and Carson were losers in the game.

So the sabre-rattling of the anti-partition league and the odd border campaign aside, where Redmond failed it fell to Hume to take up the game both politically and philosophically in the 1960s.

Both men instinctively were persuaders though Hume could have no illusions, as Redmond had, about the scale of the problem. He had to improve the lot of northern nationalists within the northern state, create greater protections for nationalists by urging greater involvement for the southern state as their guarantors, and, in recognition of the concession that this would involve for unionists, to offer an east-west rapprochement in tandem. His challenge was to wage this struggle against the backdrop of a 30 year war which sought to coerce unionism from its identity – the republican solution to the Unionist wrong was to seek to impose another wrong. 

Ultimately, Hume recognised that the Redmondite experience suggested the problem of a divided nation lay principally on the island of Ireland. Republicans sought to bypass that difficulty by asserting the problem was the British themselves. Only in 1993 when – in the form of the Downing Street Declaration – the British finally made clear this was not the case, did Sinn Féin and the IRA find the impetus to end the long war.

Hume’s thinking around the principle of consent and the internalisation of the consent principle to the island of Ireland with international support for the outcome, mirrors in part Redmond’s views on a united Irish nation, including the Irish diaspora, within the Empire. 

Hume’s thinking and his revisionist nationalism came of a need to find a real solution to a practical problem. It was afforded both an impetus and an impediment by the Long War.  The troubles ensured many nationalists in the south questioned their own tradition and its elevation to hagiography. But the key question, the question of how unionist and nationalist could live side by side sharing different aspirations and different histories, remained the same issues faced by Redmond following the Home Rule Crisis.

If there is a reason to commemorate Redmond today it is because his vision of Irishness in part prefigures the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.  He came to appreciate that the only response to the unionist and nationalist divide centred round nationalists seeking to persuade rather than coerce unionists. He was an instinctive supporter of the East-West strand, more so than nationalists can tolerate today. Like Hume he understood the significance of the international dimension though his locus was not the EU and the US but the Irish in the US and the British Empire. 

And like Hume, Redmond would have instinctively have been extremely supportive of minority rights in both southern and northern jurisdictions had any Home Rule regime been implemented.

It would not be right to say Redmond was ahead of his time. Rather the opposite is the case. 
His opposition to female suffrage would particularly jar today and there is an irony that he died in the year that the first female suffrage legislation was enacted. He, not DeValera, was the first leader to articulate that Labour had to wait. He was a conservative even by his own times, an elitist, a Catholic aristocrat, and a man that grew to love many British institutions and saw value in the Irish contribution to them. 

There is an irony here of course. Like his Home Rule predecessors and even his successor Republicans he boycotted pretty much everything else British save the sitting in parliament itself. Some believe had he taken up a role in the British Cabinet in 1915 he could have countered Carson’s influence. 

But in so far as he came to understand that his argument for a Home Rule Ireland across the whole island needed to be a persuasive one, had to be based on shared experience and respect, he still has lessons to teach us today. He was and remained a patriot. His contribution to Irish independence is as significant, if not more significant, than many lauded today. Nor do you need to support his policies to recognise his stature. You do not need to support his vision of Ireland to recognise that it held the allegiance of his fellow country people for the best part of two decades. 

'Presenting the Colours'. John Redmond inspects the Irish Volunteers at Maryboro in 1914. (Image: National Library of Ireland, INDH12c)

There is a wonderful piece  written by Michael Davitt, Ireland’s most prominent labour man until Connolly, not long before he died, looking forward to the implementation of Home Rule. It treats Redmond with genuine affection but politically recognises him as leader of the conservative Home Rule forces. Understandably, he is depicted as winning the first post-Home Rule election, becoming Prime Minister and governing with the support of similarly conservative Unionist forces.  But he loses the second election as more radical forces, again both unionist and nationalist, hold sway. Davitt is clearly sympathetic to these latter victors but is at pains to point out that Redmond’s Home Rule Government sought to create an Ireland which recognises and heralds the merits of both traditions and facilitates the expression of both.

Like Redmond or loath him, he was an honourable man who expended 40 years of his life in Ireland’s service, and for 15 of those identifiably as Ireland’s national leader. Like many others he was jailed during the Plan of Campaign. He got many things wrong, but sometimes for the right reason. Without his leadership Ireland would be a different place today. Judge him by his times. And as we commemorate the centenary of his death in 1918, a death rendered more tragic by the death of his brother in the preceding 12 months, recognise that in an inclusive national and ‘nationalist’ tradition he deserves greater recognition in his country and its capital city than he enjoys today.

Rónán O’Brien is a political activist and communications professional. One of the editors of Making the Difference?: The Irish Labour Party 1912–2012, published by Collins Press in 2012, he served as Special Advisor to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform between 2011 and 2016.


Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.