Review of Ronan Fanning’s Fatal Path, British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922
The centenary of Irish commemorations is well and truly underway. If you are interested in Irish history you have many treats in store, from the ceremonies two years hence to mark the anniversary of the 1916 Rising and all that flowed from that seminal event, to the many new histories and reassessments being published about this period.
A great place to start, or continue, is to spend some comfortable hours reading Ronan Fanning’s Fatal Path, British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922 (faber and faber, 2013). I have an interest to declare in that Ronan was my history professor at UCD and subsequently advisor on my Ph.D. His book echoes with what I recall as his immense interest in how the interactions of people created the events, negotiations and outcomes and that shaped our history. In class he would positively thrill to the telling anecdote or incident that revealed the human side of history making. That humanising quality shines through in this volume. His deft sketches of the characters involved – British and Irish – give enough to enliven them and their relationships with each other without unduly pausing the rush of narrative.
And it is a rush, a–hard-to-put-down story of the birth of our country. A lifetime steeped in this story, notably from the perspective of Anglo-Irish diplomacy, allows Fanning mastery of the material both original and secondary. It is a master class in selection and compression.
Fanning’s magnum opus is of course his history of the Department of Finance. Concerned that he alone would see many of the files made available to him for his research, Fanning included in the volume much original material, making it quite a hefty tome, an essential guide to one of the key stakeholders in Ireland’s story, but ultimately an unwieldy product. (As it turned out, the archives would eventually be released.)
In contrast, one of the strengths of the Fatal Path is the ruthlessness with which Fanning uncovers and directs his story. Again and again he underscores, as if etching the point in disapproving red, that the primary British interest lay in sorting out the Ulster unionists first, and only then dealing with the wearisome business of the perennial Irish question. The British Government adopt partition as the unavoidable outcome of, and solution to the Irish problem just as soon as the Ulster unionists and their Tory party allies realise there is no stopping home rule once the Great War is brought to a conclusion.
The only issue on which the Ulster unionists were not accommodated was their own status in relation to the rest of Britain. They would have preferred simple integration but London, ever mindful of Washington’s disapproving eye, felt it had no choice but to make a virtue of granting self-determination (within the Empire of course) to the whole of Ireland even if it was to be bifurcated between two local parliaments.
The converse of Fanning’s analysis holds true for nationalists and if he hovers a red pen over them it is for their unwillingness to accept what was staring them in the face – the implacable hostility of the Unionists to home rule and any accommodation within an autonomous Ireland. If London came to the conclusion that the fundamental question was how to sort out the Ulster unionists, nationalists held to the contrary view that it was no such thing, that it was merely internal housekeeping to be decided after national self-determination was granted.
There was of course nothing to gain for nationalists to concede the point of unionist implacability, but it left them open to the accusation of willful delusion. If nationalists could claim self-determination, why couldn’t the Ulster unionists do the same? Why indeed did nationalists find the UVF so inspiring? There is no gainsaying the point that the formation of the UVF directly inspired the formation of the Irish Volunteer movement and all that that portended for the future course of Anglo-Irish relations.
Fanning’s interest is the perspective from London and much of his narrative therefore is drawn from British documents and the records of British officials involved. Events shaping things on the ground in Ireland – the 1916 Rising, the impact of the prospect of conscription, bloody incidents of insurrection and counter-insurgency – come as reports from a distant land in this telling. Their value for Fanning’s purposes is how they shaped the thoughts of the members of the cabinet and their advisors who are charged with calculating and politicking their way toward a negotiated outcome, while managing to keep the coalition government intact.
No greater politician, nor greater schemer, occupies this story than David Lloyd George, and Fanning rightly accords him pride of place as the little dynamo of diplomacy and intrigue, fixated on his twin objectives of staying in power as Prime Minister and inexorably maneuvering to solve the ‘Irish question’.
Perhaps the single most consequential question for Ireland was why Eamon de Valera did not lead the delegation to London for the fateful negotiations that would lead to the Treaty. Again Fanning deftly sculpts his prose to capture the likely factors and miscalculations at play. According to Fatal Path, it was a combination of calculation and miscalculation. Of this fateful decision Fanning writes:
“De Valera knew from his own talks with Lloyd George in July of the extreme difficulty of the negotiations that lay ahead. He knew, too, that any Irish negotiating team would be callow and inexperienced compared to their British counterparts, who would also enjoy the advantage of playing at home. In theory, his strategy of denying finality to what might happen in Downing Street by insisting that that final decision be taken in Dublin seemed shrewd. In practice it was fatally flawed because of the inherent contradiction between the plenipotentiary status of the delegates and their agreement to sign nothing in London that had not been endorsed by the Dáil cabinet in Dublin. First, because de Valera failed adequately to explain his reasoning to the plenipotentiaries before the talks began; the corollary was that it never occurred to de Valera that the ultimate decision about an agreement might be made in London and not in Dublin. Second, because the bonding that took place between the plenipotentiaries on their wearying journeys by sea and rail and during their long hours in London silently corroded de Valera’s authority with consequences that proved disastrous.”
I’ve always wondered about this decision myself. (Indeed, we discussed it in depth in Fanning’s tutorials as he threw the imponderables of the vexed episode at our callow minds: I doubt we ever gave the man an original thought on it.) De Valera once said that his greatest regret was not arresting the delegation on arrival in Dublin Treaty in hand. They had defied him, the elected President, in concluding terms on the most profound issue of independence, the holy grail of eight hundred years of struggle.
Yet this was surely hyperbole on de Valera’s part, offered in hindsight and with a fair degree of awareness that he himself had contributed to the tragic events that followed the Treaty debates. De Valera had received regular reports from the delegates, including Collins and Griffith. As Fanning notes, the delegates themselves plied their weary way between London and Dublin at intervals. De Valera himself had discussed the territory of the deal with Lloyd George previously. Above all, as Fanning points out, the outlines of the deal were pregnant in the very acceptance of the invitation to talks.
One might usefully parse Fanning’s use of the term ‘disastrous’ on two counts. One because it presumes that something substantially more was on offer than the delegates secured; and two because part of the disastrous effect of the Treaty was generated by de Valera’s own reaction to and ultimate rejection of it, a response that added to the fateful momentum toward civil war.
Fanning’s analytical stare, his focus on the essential, brooks no patience with those who might quibble or equivocate, mitigate or excuse the performance of the Irish delegates; his portrait of the Irish delegates, and indeed their performance when pitted against their British counterparts, is so candid as to verge on the merciless. They arrived without a written text of their own, a disastrous ceding of advantage to the British side. In place of their chief navigator, de Valera, Arthur Griffith assumed effective leadership, his sense of honor exploited by Lloyd George at the critical hour. They had limited instructions and no worked out fall-back positions or creative proposals about the critical issues surrounding partition – its territorial extent, its relationship with the parliament-to-be in Dublin, protections for Catholics within unionist jurisdiction, not even for the mechanisms for registering local opinion in the event of a border plebiscite. (For all of these failures, de Valera must shoulder responsibility too.)
Ranged against them were some of the finest political and legal minds of the British Empire, led by a political mastermind in Lloyd George who had just spent much of the previous year honing his skills as he negotiated the postwar peace in Europe.
Fanning’s brisk account of the Anglo-Irish negotiations is fascinating and compelling. Even as he recounts the negotiations and Lloyd George’s mastery of them, he cuts back again and again to the fundamentals – that a deal on the Irish question was built on an unwavering commitment to the Ulster unionists. There appears for a time some tussle over the question of the crown and unity i.e. that the nationalist side believed a fair outcome included some semblance of unity in exchange for acceptance of the Crown and Empire. The logic of their argument was impeccable. If they were not getting unity, why accept anything less than a republic for the twenty-six counties; conversely for a semblance of unity they would acquiesce in a semblance of loyalty.
Logic does not however dictate outcomes in power politics, however, and the forces facing the delegates were overpowering – the impregnable position of the Ulster unionists, the power and influence of their allies, the utter dependence of Lloyd George on the Tories for his continuation as Prime Minister. By the time the delegates were pleading for fairness, Lloyd George knew he had them where he wanted them and the deal in the bag; all that remained was for them to sign before departure, which he accomplished with a magician’s flare.
Of Lloyd George’s triumph, Fanning quotes from the diary of Tom Jones, a key Whitehall official on Irish affairs, to devastating effect: ‘In essentials we have given nothing that was not in the July proposals.’
The scions of Empire might indeed congratulate themselves on their triumph but as one pulls back from the immediate drama and intrigue of the Anglo-Irish negotiations one must wonder at its Pyrrhic nature. Were they so really so blind to this? After all, they had not negotiated to keep Ireland but to let it go. Collins would stand in Dublin Castle the following January to assume command and see off the departing British garrison. They had conspired – and conspired is the right word in this context – to divide Ireland as definitively as the Ulster unionists dictated. For the sake of an oath of loyalty to the Crown adopted per force by the unwilling, Ireland would suffer a civil war.
Stepping even further back, Home Rule had been promised by Gladstone since 1886 yet had been undelivered, its frustration breeding an implacable seam of republican nationalism that would stage the 1916 Rising and reshape Anglo-Irish relations irrevocably. In this thirty-six year long debacle surely lies an honorary companion to Barbara Tuchman’s catalogue of inexplicable historical failures, The March of Folly.
In threatening war to seal his deal, Lloyd George was transgressing one of the laws of successful negotiations or at least those that look to an enduring outcome – that the result of all the late nights and deadlines be manifestly fair to all sides, with gains and losses accounted for equitably. My own experience of negotiation during the Good Friday Agreement talks suggests just such an outcome. For while there was much hard bargaining, the talks were undertaken by equal partners, jointly managed by Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair (in what was assuredly their finest hour), and presided over by the avuncular and trustworthy George Mitchell. There was a common aim in trying to broker an historic peace deal, not a competition to win unsustainable gains.
By that measure, Lloyd George was clever but not wise. Indeed the palpable relief of Lloyd George, Churchill et al to be free of the ‘Irish bog’ would be funny if the circumstances were not so tragic. It was a measure of their partisanship, their lack of any sense that Ireland could be a valued partner in the great enterprise of a Commonwealth that they so ostensibly valued as a free one. The great divide, which Fanning does not shrink, was religious sectarianism and the fundamental problem so many in British governing circles had in regard to Catholicism.
Has the verdict of history been kind to Lloyd George’s achievement in the Government of Ireland Act and the Treaty? Yes and no. Lloyd George had the inestimable common sense to look at what he faced and reconcile the demands of the Ulster unionists, the aspirations of the nationalists and the needs of the imperialists. That was no mean achievement and, aside from the tragic events of the Irish civil war, in doing so he brought about a settlement.
On the other hand, his settlement was twice unpicked. As soon as he was in power, de Valera surgically dismembered the Treaty, mainly and substantially through his 1937 Constitution. After three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, the Government of Ireland Act was transcended by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that recast partition not as a sundering but as an expression of self-determination that was, moreover, capable of change if a majority so decided in the future.
What is striking from Fanning’s account is how negative British attitudes toward the Irish determined so much of the approach and decisions made between 1910 and 1922. His account reminds us of how far we have travelled in Anglo-Irish relations and how firm our concord now is, resting as it does on a relationship of equality and mutual respect. Had those qualities been in greater evidence back then perhaps the path of Anglo-Irish relations might not have proven so fatal. Fanning has done good service in looking afresh at Britain’s approach to the Irish revolution. His firm divination of the sources of power directing that approach brings a welcome candour and maturity to the analysis.