Power without Authority in Ireland, III: 1800 and the Secular Vacuum

If even the prospect of getting swallowed up in global war in 1939-40 was insufficient to generate some national discipline, no wonder de Valera was left puzzled.  How could you run a country without some authority?

More profoundly, how could he, as a revolutionary nationalist, shape Ireland to reflect the ideas of his generation, a generation that had finally realised the country’s independence?  De Valera had fought, risked death, schemed and strategized to free his country so that it could realise itself as a Gaelic speaking society based on small self-sufficient farms, economically as independent of the outside world as possible, committed to the international rule of law, and a national paragon of social order, fairness, values and spiritual fulfilment.

There was precious little evidence that this was actually happening.  The Irish language continued its decline, as did rural depopulation while emigration for better jobs and lives overseas continued unabated. The economic war had if anything underlined Ireland’s dependence on Britain and the outside world for trade and vital imports.  World War II would do so emphatically.  And there was even less evidence that the Government had the authority to run the country, much less revolutionise it.

On the contrary, it appeared that authority was diffused among a whole range of sectors and special interests, leaving little if any to central Government.  Institutions, associations, unions, sectoral interests, subversive elements, even Government Departments all cherished their claims to unique autonomy and authority.  The system, such as it was, was highly siloed and highly territorial.  It was as if when the British left in 1922, Irish society decided it had had enough of central authority, even if a central authority of their own making after 1921. How had this come about?

Perhaps tellingly, de Valera did not address underlying causes in his radio broadcast.  He did not have far to look when it came to one of the chief causes of his Government’s vitiated authority.  The dominant alternative source of national authority was the Catholic Church.  And de Valera not only failed to challenge it, he accepted and in many ways facilitated its continued authority.  He had enshrined its “special position” in his Constitution.  Indeed, de Valera could not extricate Christianity and ‘right way of living’ from his conception of the state.  From God, to the individual, to the family to the state was a progression unified by the divine will and man’s ethical response to it.

Yet I would hold that the role of the Catholic Church in Ireland was not the only or perhaps even prime reason for the weakness of central authority in Ireland.  To understand this requires a leap of imagination, a counter-factual analysis because it is about an absence, not a presence like the Catholic Church.

I am referring to the abolition of the Irish parliament under the Acts of Union in 1800. Acts were passed in the Irish and British parliaments, the former abolishing itself, the latter absorbing the peers and parliamentarians of the former.  As the benches were ripped out of the only purpose built parliament in Western Europe (sold quickly to the Bank of Ireland in 1802), the better to seal its fate, the Irish members of parliament decamped to London.

Though coated in the language of union and mutual identification, encouraged by what proved to be false assurances of Catholic emancipation, the abolition of the Irish parliament by Britain was in fact an act of clear sighted imperial interests whose aim was to forestall the evolution of Irish government.

The Irish parliament was not best-loved at the time and is not fondly remembered today, if remembered much at all.  Its limitations were themselves a product of imperial suzerainty.  The actual government in Ireland – the Ministers of State – was appointed by the Lord Lieutenant from the membership of the Irish Privy Council.  Those in Government in Ireland, though talented men, spent much of their energy controlling the parliament though bribery and corrupt influence like conferring titles, pensions and well paid jobs.  It could only continue to do this if the momentum toward reform under Grattan and others was resisted.  For as one historian (Edmud Curtis) put it, Ireland “had a sovereign parliament, and parliaments which have asserted a large measure of right, generally go on to claim more” (Edmund Curtis, A History of Ireland, 6th edition, 1950, p.323).  As the 18th century drew to a close, Prime Minister Pitt believed the limit to British management of the Irish parliament was fast approaching.

The British excuse for the abolition was war with France and rebellion in Ireland. Against the backdrop of the French Revolution, the rebellion of 1798, fears that swathes of Irish Protestants might actually be attracted to the establishment of a state based on republican principles (as the Scotch-Irish had demonstrated in America), Britain snuffed out the Irish parliament.

Yes the parliament was corrupt and unrepresentative.  And Catholics had little reason at the time to love it; if the price of emancipation was the loss of an Ascendancy institution so be it seemed to be the attitude. If they could find equality within a greater United Kingdom, Catholics safely now a minority, then so be it.  (Hence the support Catholic Church for the union).  Catholic Ireland was not to know that this was an illusion, that the promised emancipation would be postponed and resisted for decades, that Irish careers in British administration, government, law and the army would be denied because of anti-Catholic bigotry that would last into the twentieth century.

The underlying Brisith reason for the abolition of the parliament was the very same Irish reason to lament its passing.  The Irish Parliament was being reformed and would inevitable demand that the government of Ireland be accountable to it, at least for domestic matters.  Eventually that would mean at least shared control of ministerial appointments.  Catholic emancipation would come eventually and outvote the Protestant Ascendancy.  And if a more representative government was achieved and ran Irish affairs for Ireland, then it was not hard to see this becoming too a demand for real equality in international matters like trade, war and peace, and diplomacy.

Arguments are made that Ireland’s economic fortunes were not damaged by the Acts of Union, that post-war recession and financial rectitude were inevitably adverse one way or another.  Yet it is hard not to escape the contrast in the broad economic narratives of Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the 18th century, Ireland’s population had grown from 1.5m to 4.5m. Exports of linen measured by the yard had gone from 0.5m to 47m. Total exports in value went from £550,000 to £5m.  Under the Irish corn laws between 1784 and 1846, labour intensive Irish tillage agriculture boomed, producing the wealth that built the grand Irish houses of the Ascendancy and a new emerging Catholic business and middle class.

In the 19th century, pasturage returned, farms subdivided, the potato proliferated as a subsistence crop for over half the population, the unprotected textile industry collapsed in the face of industrialised products from England and Belfast.  Demands of the Irish middle class for good government were unheard in a British House of Commons where Irish MPs number 100 of 600.  The House of Lords was actively hostile to Irish interests and would be a determining influence until its power was broken by the crisis over the 1909 People’s Budget and the subsequeent Parliament Act of 1911.  In contrast, the British Reform Act of 1832 gave the British middle class political power and a government responsive to their needs.  The great humanitarian, social and economic cataclysm of the Famine, profoundly damaged Ireland’s development, unleashing forces that cut its population in half and altered for the worse its economic and social development.

With the Acts of Union then, instead of looking to its own economic and social advancement, Irish political energy was side-tracked to Westminster and the fight, first, for Catholic Emancipation and then repeal of the Union.

Instead of having a national political forum for Catholics and Protestants to find political rapport under the reassuring suzerainty of the British crown, relations between nationalists and unionists would be manipulated and decided in the wider and ultimately more toxic environment of British politics where the question of the union would eventually be used cynically by the Tories in their struggle against the Liberal Party.

Instead of developing local departments to provide public services like health and education, London lazily yielded those to the Catholic Church.

Instead of looking to Ireland’s indigenous economic development as a local parliament would have, even, if not especially, one dominated by Protestants, London allowed Ireland, outside of Belfast’s industrial base, deteriorate into a subsistence agricultural economy before the Great Famine, and, afterwards, a live cattle exporting pasturage with little economic value added.

Instead of dealing humanely with the Great Famine, as a local parliament would assuredly have done, London turned a cold and imperious eye on the suffering as but an outcome of over-population and Catholic sloth.

Instead of fretting about wholesale emigration as a great national haemorrhage, London was relieved that such a potentially rebellious people were taking themselves off across the great Atlantic, getting absorbed into its own burgeoning cities, providing cheap labour for its industrial complex, or joining its imperial garrisons around the world.

For the critical one hundred and twenty years after the Act of Union, when other Western countries were developing at an exponential rate, Ireland was bereft of a political centre around which to organise itself, a political centre that in its enabling and domestically focused legislative powers would have created a whole corpus of administration that would have accumulated and acquired for the capital and its politicians real authority.

As the Georgian mansions of Dublin emptied out of their gentry, the silversmiths and lace makers went out of business, and the city lost its political relevance.  No wonder that local interests gathered to themselves their own authority, from the Church, employers and unions to new and powerful non-governmental organisations like the GAA.  As far as any countervailing centre of authority was concerned, there was no there ‘there’.

Nationalist leaders took over the country after a long political and military struggle.  The War of Independence was necessitated in response to Britain’s determination to protect its imperial ego and in part to create Northern Ireland (see Ronan Fanning, Fatal Path).  That in itself generated a impoverishing reduction in the definition of Irish identity.  (Though the process of recovery has been underway at least since the 1990s, I’d worry about Brexit’s negative influence).

With independence, the Government faced profound challenges, not least ex post facto justification for the struggle in the first place.  They had to make Ireland a better place than they had found it.  Yet to do this job, they had won power but not inherited authority.  Getting things done meant a complex negotiation with those who had acquired authority under Britain’s neglective watch, most conspicuously the Church but les obviously a host of other economic and social interests.  Change would be slow and complex, some notably and usually state run national projects notwithstanding like electrification under the ESB.  Choosing a very sensitive electoral system ensured that government was ever alert to the public mood but perhaps also senstive to the complexity of atomised authority.  The decades after independence would become a dispiriting slow march in contrast to the febrile excitement of the pre-independence struggle.

Therein lay the paradox of government in independent Ireland, power without authority.

 

 

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Power without Authority in Ireland, II: Church, State and Vested Interests

When in 1940 de Valera pondered the lack of governmental authority, he did not have far to look for one of the underlying causes.  It’s actually embedded in his radio broadcast; his invocation of Catholic ethos the better to sell his argument that society is founded on a surrender of authority to government.  The dominant alternative source of national authority, one that pre-existed the establishment of the state, was of course the Catholic Church.

Since de Valera could not extricate Christianity and ‘right way of living’ from his conception of the state and man’s place in it, he was not going to challenge the Church’s authority.  From God, to the individual, to the family to the state was a progression unified by the divine will and man’s ethical response to it.  So not only was de Valera not going to challenge this powerful rival for authority, he facilitated its continued authority and embedded its role in his Constitution.

For de Valera, Catholicism was inseparable from Irish identity.  Or to put it another way, he saw the Irish people’s devotion to Catholicism, contrary to all the social and economic advantages of conversion to Protestantism and a comfortable place in the British Empire, as confirming his conviction that being Catholic and being Irish were inextricable. De Valera saw in Ireland’s centuries’ long struggle a sign of divine providence that the Irish were meant to be Catholic.

Moreover, like many people, de Valera believed that early Irish Christianity had saved civilisation during the Dark Ages. There is a strong historical case to back this up of course.  However, de Valera believed further that the Irish needed to replay this mission as a new Dark Age beckoned – one of materialism, fascism, and war.  Independent Ireland would be beacon of spirituality, frugality, and the right of living.  On this thesis, de Valera had little company but there was widespread support for the identification of Catholicism with Irish identity. The Eucharistic Congress of 1932 gave expression to this strong public belief.

How had this come about?  How had Catholicism and its institutional expression in the Catholic Church acquired such an authoritative position?

I’d propose four key factors behind it.

The first was that in the 19th century the British Government devolved responsibility to the Catholic Church for much of Ireland’s health and education services.  It was a good deal for both.  London found it cheap and a relief of responsibility, not to mention avoiding endless battles with the Church over ethical issues likely to arise from a largely Catholic country being ruled by a Protestant one.  For the Church it conferred on it responsibility for its flock from the cradle to the grave and gave it unique secular as well as spiritual authority over the Catholic population.

Try dissenting from an institution that blessed your birth, educated you, restored you to health, married you, did the same for your children and then buried you.  Additional benefits accrued if you were male; the system bulwarked the patriarchy and kept woman in highly confined roles and subservient in relationships.

Secondly, the Catholic Church, in cooperation with society, policed sexuality and more particularly fertility.  This was an exceptionally important role in post-Famine Ireland where the inheritance of the undivided farm by one son was such an overriding desideratum.  Fertility, even female beauty, was seen as a subversive of th is social order.  An unwanted pregnancy threatened ordered inheritance, a vital social and economic imperative that was seared into the collective by the Great Famine.  When a pregnancy outside marriage did happen, the Church had the institutional responses to deal with it, from Magdalene laundries and reformatory schools to orphanages and adoption systems.

Inheritance, marriage, and fertility shaped our emigration patterns too.   In contrast to the Litvak Jews arriving in New York who were married young and had children, the Irish were young and single.  They were shipped off before any inheritance complications arose from passion and pregnancies.

The third factor was that nationalist identity became increasingly synonymous with being Catholic, a process that intensified as Home Rule moved centre stage and unionists hewed ever closer to their British identity in resistance.  On the nationalist side, the process intensified particularly from 1916 onwards as the nationalist struggle stripped away the complexities of Irish identity.

This brings us to the fourth factor, namely partition.  Partition enabled the new Irish state to identify as a Catholic one and avoid any tricky questions about how to embrace alternative non-Catholic forms of nationalist identity.  It was a particularly bitter blow to those from Protestant backgrounds and who had been prominent in the nationalist revival from the fall of Parnell onwards, not to mention the Protestant community generally living in the south.

Had a government of a non-partitioned Ireland to create a polity that embraced a large Protestant community, it is clear that the Catholic Church could not have had a virtual monopoly in health, education and public moral discourse.  Aside from the economic damage, this was one of the great wounds inflicted in Ireland by partition socially and politically.

So the Catholic Church had been a nationalist institution long before there was a national government. The newly independent state had to establish itself in the spaces not already occupied by the Catholic Church.  And where government did chose to act it had to contend with the countervailing interests and authority of the Church and those who found it convenient to ally with it.

The key to being influencial in Ireland, to shaping outcomes to suit particular vested interests, was understanding where authority lay and how to manipulate it to your own ends.

There was no clearer public example of this than the controversial Mother-and-Child Scheme, generally misinterpreted as a prime instance of church authority being wielded over government, in short a clash of church and state.

The Mother and Child Scheme had been conceived and developed by the Department of Health as a response to the fact that Ireland had one of the highest levels of infant mortality in Western Europe and much of this was caused by gastro-enteritis: unhygienic practices that could be put right, at least in part, by state support for and education in maternal care.

This idea of such a clash struck me as odd in a society where in fact church and state were in a happy alliance. It prompted me (back in 1986) to dig deeper into it, the results of which were published in the journal of the Irish Historical Society.

My interpretation was that it was really a clash between the state and the vested interests not of the church but of the private medical practitioner.  The notion that this episode represented a clash of church and state obscured what was really at stake: the defence of private practice and associated incomes on the part of doctors against state medical services.

The Irish Medical Organisation quietly organised against the scheme.  Its members feared that it was the thin edge of the wedge as the state took over family practices.  ‘Whoever gets the mother and child gets the family’ was darkly whispered.  The development of the NHS in Britain seemed to point the way to a new future of state provided health services.  Behind the scenes, the IMO astutely used fears that state medicine would led to the provision of godless services.  It mobilised the bishops against the scheme.  It was no contest and the Inter-Party Government backed down.

The doctors weren’t the only ones to see opportunities in the role of the church.  The fantastic career of Joe McGrath and the wealth that he accrued was tied up intimately in the church’s role in health care provision.  IRA bank robber and bodyguard to Collins during the Treaty negotiations, this was a man who knew how the system worked.  Ostensibly to help fund the health services, he and his buddies created the Hospital Sweepstake and made themselves fabulously wealthy.

It would have taken a far more powerful central government, a more determinedly secular generation of revolutionaries, to disrupt the distribution of authority in Ireland vis-a-vis church state relations.  Though he grasped the point about authority, and understood that the government had less than it needed, de Valera was the last man in Ireland prepared to tackle the government’s primary competitor for authority.

Yet I think this is not really the whole story.  The emergence of the Catholic Church as such a force in Ireland from the mid-19th century onwards had to have a conducive environment.  Or to put it another way, its success suggests that it did not have a competitor for authority, at least in those arenas of social and personal life that concerned it.

For an explanation, in the next blog we’ll look deeper into Ireland’s history, back in fact to 1800 when Britain abolished our national parliament.

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Power without Authority in Ireland, I: The Paradox of Government in Independent Ireland

The distinction between power and authority is an important one.  Power is what you are entitled to do.  For a duly elected leader, power means passing laws, signing treaties and promulgating policies.  Authority is the degree to which others comply with your directions.

Getting the degree of compliance with authority right is a tricky business for any society because it involves balancing freedom against effectiveness.  Too much in either direction can threaten a society’s future.

For newly emergent states that have struggled for independence it is a particularly challenging issue because heightened expectations about imminent economic or social transformation sit uneasily with countervailing expectations of personal and corporate autonomy.

This is a narrative in Ireland’s post-independent history but it’s a ghostly one, lost behind sacred assumptions, jealously guarded fiefdoms, blatant corporate territoriality, monopolistic defence of professions and their inflated incomes, social conservatism, and ultimately a failure to define the issue and discuss it.

De Valera seemed to grasp the issue, indeed struggle with it; but ultimately in frustration he retreated from it, keeping a strange and ultimately tragic silence from his simulacrum of power, the Áras.

We can with some accuracy identify the moment when de Valera realised that he had achieved power but not authority.  It was Easter 1940.

With the challenges of war facing Ireland on his mind, de Valera took to the airwaves and used the anniversary of the Easter Rising to lecture his people on the virtues and purpose of authority.

“Authority can, and does, restrict us, but it is a restriction of guidance productive of innumerable blessings for the community so guided.  The sole purpose of public authority is the welfare of those who are governed.  Man, by his nature, is meant to live in society.”  De Valera argued that Irish people had to adjust “our individual wills to the decisions of those whom we have chosen to lead.  Without such discipline we must inevitably degenerate into a rabble.  That is true of all peoples, and we cannot hope to be an exception.”  He went on:

The social group of [man’s] family begets and nurtures, and, to a certain extent, educates him.  But it is obvious that he cannot find within himself nor within his family the means adequate to develop fully his powers as a person, or, normally, even to support his physical life.  A wider organisation is necessary, a durable grouping of others with him, where each collaborates with all his fellows to provide those general conditions wherein it may be possible to live a fully human life.  Among those conditions are the reign of peace and order, the provision of sufficient economic or material goods, and the fostering of the higher spiritual or cultural qualities by which human life is made truly human.  This permanent union of men united for the general good is what we know as ‘society’.

Reading it now, it is an awkward sermonising address, a strange mixture of de Valera’s typical pedantic style but heavily reliant on an oddly ecclesiastical note. “It would, indeed, help much to intelligent obedience if we reflected more often on the helpfulness of the sovereign public authority.  We should see in it a blessing, truly a gift of God, an instrument of His willing, whereby our lives are protected and developed.  Obedience then would not prove a grudging submission, but a willing acceptance, of the Creator’s Sovereignty, as it is exercised by men.  There would be less reason for the State to use force, which it has, undoubtedly, the right and duty to use for the maintenance of the essential peace and order of the community.”  (Quotes from The Irish Times, 25 March 1940)

Certainly de Valera invoked the challenges of war as a rationale for authority but his concerns about the lack of central authority in Ireland were, I believe, much deeper than the exigencies of the immediate crisis.

Actually from the outset of taking office in 1932 de Valera had been on the receiving end of quite a few lessons in the limitations to the authority of central government, even to the authority of his own office within government.

The first lesson was not long in coming and involved a standoff between his own executive office of the President and the Department of Finance.  De Valera devoted his primary attention for his first seven years in office to unpicking the 1921 Treaty and replacing it with his own vision of Anglo-Irish relations and a constitution.  In this the Land Annuities loomed large.  It was an arena in which one would have thought he reigned supreme.  J.J. McElligott, Secretary of the Department of Finance, had other ideas.

In an exchange of letters with J.H. Thomas, the Secretary of the Dominions Office, de Valera set out his three chief grievances, namely the Treaty, the ports and the ‘financial tribute’ arising from the Land Annuities i.e. payments of £3m per annum collected by the Irish Government from Irish farmers and paid to Britain against loans used to purchase and distribute land under the 1891 and 1909 Land Acts.

As McMahon recounts in Republicans and Imperialists, Anglo-Irish Relations in the 1930s, Thomas reminded de Valera of the obligation to pay the annuities under the financial agreements of 1923 and 1926: “When de Valera received Thomas’s despatch he ordered a search for the 1923 agreement, but his assistant secretary noted on 11 April that the Department of Finance were refusing to hand it over to the President’s Department, despite a ruling from the Attorney General.”  J.J. McElligott was obdurate and the matter continued to be pursued up to 1937, notes McMahon.

It was really an astonishing episode.  De Valera, as President of the Executive Council, was looking a key document in a dispute with the British Government that threatened and in fact delivered an economic war highly damaging to the Irish economy.  Yet an official refused him sight of it. De Valera manifestly didn’t push the point and just got on with the negotiations.  After the damaging economic war, negotiations resumed to a successful conclusion in 1938.  With the promulgation of the 1937 Constitution, the ending of the economic war, and the handover of the Treaty ports, Anglo-Irish relations were satisfactorily reset to de Valera’s dictates.

De Valera’s opportunity to realise his vision of Ireland in economic and social terms however had to be done in the radically new and challenging context of growing global conflict and very real fears that Britain was about to be overrun by Germany.  The Germans in blockading Britain were blockading Ireland.  The Cabinet greatly feared that mass unemployment, even starvation, would bring social upheaval.  Great social discipline would be required, de Valera repeatedly warned in speeches and radio addresses, if Ireland were to survive.

Yet a whole series of incidents demonstrated painfully the absence of social discipline, that inclination to abide by the Government’s directions and accept its authority.  The following instances illustrate just how fragile was the government’s hold.

De Valera’s Minister for Finance, Seán MacEntee, got a sharp lesson himself in the limits to his authority.  As war threatened in late 1938 and early 1939, he was deeply concerned that Britain would not convert Ireland’s sterling assets into US dollars for essential imports like oil, coal, grains, and tea.  He approached the Irish Banks Standing Committee – the nearest thing we had to a Central Bank – to ask them to start building up reserves of dollars.  They refused him point blank.  They were not going to upset the perfectly established relationship with London.  As a concession they had acquire “a moderate amount of gold”.  They went on to advise MacEntee, with some condescension it must be said and rather beside the point, that a few well edited and inspired articles in the press could help allay public anxiety.

This rejection would spur the Government to create the Central Bank a few years later but not to take any immediate actions to force the point.  And, of course, during the war Britain highly constrained Ireland’s access to dollars, partly to punish it for neutrality (like cutting Ireland’s tea ration below even that in Britain) and partly because it was short of them itself in the opening years.

In the autumn of 1939, just as the U-boat menace began sinking merchant ships around the archipelago, the Country Dublin Farmers Association went about blockading Dublin.  It set pickets on the approach roads to intercept lorries carrying pigs to let the pigs loose, trailers full of turnips to send them rolling down the road, and cart loads of milk to overturn them.  They wanted higher prices to compensate for the rise in the price of inputs.  Some eighty farmers were arrested and convicted in November.  It was not the kind of civil action that inspired confidence that the country was coming together in solidarity against a hostile external environment.

The outbreak of foot and mouth disease was another example of government’s lack of authority.  Despite intensive efforts by the Department of Agriculture and its inspectors to contain the outbreak, the disease spread alarmingly as regulations were ignored and cattle moved about regardless.  Aside from the restriction on Ireland’s most important export commodity, The Irish Times reported in October 1941, when the outbreak was finally contained, that the 556 outbreaks across thirteen counties had cost the government £451,021 in compensation and involved the slaughter of 27,895 cattle, 9,797 sheep, 708 goats and 3,201 swine.

In his new role as Minister for Industry and Commerce in the reshuffle of 1939, MacEntee was a central figure in trying to resolve a strike by Dublin’s municipal workers.  This had brought services to a standstill and generated very heated public opposition because it seemed as if the unions went on strike annually and the latest wage demands – which would push up the rates significantly – were unjustified.  MacEntee did much scampering around trying to end the strike, calling for a summit in Dublin Castle, all to no avail.  Yet all it took was a word from the auxiliary Bishop of Dublin and the strike was called off, to much public relief and no little embarrassment to MacEntee. If ever there was an example of who, between church and state, spoke with greater authority, it was this episode.

Perhaps most alarmingly of all, the National Arsenal, the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix, was raided in December 1939 in a well-executed operation and a million rounds of ammunition stolen, just as the Christmas period was beginning no less.  Most of the ammunition was recovered but it was a sharp reminder to the Government of republican elements at large determined to use the emergency of international conflict for their own ends and the subversion of the state.

Small wonder then if de Valera began to contemplate this anarchic state of affairs as Ireland faced its toughest challenge since the foundation of the state a mere seventeen years earlier.  It appeared that authority was diffused among a whole range of sectors and special interests, leaving little if any to central Government.  Institutions, associations, unions, sectoral interests, subversive elements, even Government Departments all cherished their claims to unique autonomy and authority.

It was as if when the British left in 1922, Irish society decided it had had enough of central authority, even if it was a central authority of their own making after 1921; even if that central authority was composed of men like de Valera, MacEntee, Lemass and Aiken, all of whom were members of the “revolutionary elite”.

World War seemed an irrelevance compared to special interests,  even as Ireland sough to preserve its neurality while being highly dependent for essential supplies on a neighbour that was a prime target.

How had this come about? We’ll look at that in Part II.

 

Eamonn

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The Long Road to the Good Friday Agreement – A Day at the Royal Irish Academy

Twenty years ago, a group of political leaders supported by officials convened at Castle Complex, Stormont Castle, to negotiate an agreement.  It was an intense and concentrated effort, the culmination of decades of work.  There was no certainty of outcome and yet in the end they came to an agreement.  By any measure it was an historic one.

The anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is being marked in a number of ways with events, discussions and even publications.  As part of this recognition, the Royal Irish Academy, inspired by Prof. Mary Daly, and working with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, convened a one-day conference on 21 March whose theme was “The Road to the Good Friday Agreement.”  Its focus was on the role of Irish officials who had worked on the Northern Ireland peace process.  Apart from a few key officials from the Departments of the Taoiseach and Justice, they were my colleagues from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: since the eruption of violence in 1969 my Department led on Northern Ireland. When the conflict broke out, we had one official on the job.  By the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 we had a strong Division at Headquarters, a group of travellers active in Northern Ireland gathering views and information, experienced officials rotated through our embassies in London and Washington and the consulate in New York, and a team manning the Maryfield Secretariat twenty-four-seven.

The panellists were officials who had by now retired; in other words most of those involved in the peace process at senior official level up to the GFA.  In fact myself and one other DFAT colleague, Rory Montgomery, are the only two who were on the GFA Talks Team and still in service.  There’s apparently one official left in the British system who worked closely on the peace process (it shows).  The discussion was held under Chatham House rules and so I can write about it without attribution.

Most of the chief officials from the early 1980s onwards were at the RIA, in good fettle, impressive in their intellectual heft, amusing in their telling anecdotes, and sagacious about what they were up to in trying to tame history and bring about a secure peace and resilient settlement: Michael Lillis, Sean Donlon, Noel Dorr, Sean O hUigínn, Martin Mansergh, Richard Ryan, Ted Smyth, Tim Dalton, Paddy Teahon, Tim O’Connor, David Donoghue and Daithí Ó Ceallaigh.  It was interesting to savour their individual approaches which spoke to their character and talents; gnarly world experience, impish Machiavellian insight into human behaviour, almost scientific parsing of factors, awareness of history, capacity to influence through charm and diplomacy, diligent officialdom and note taking, shamanistic authority and logical perspicacity.  And one should note too that generations of officials in Anglo-Irish Division served their part in the peace process at all levels, from clerical to senior levels, each in their own way adding to the collective push towards peace.

The panels at the Conference were organised according to the broad chronology of the process.  The failure of Sunningdale and the importance of Haughey’s 1980 tea-pot summit with Thatcher were rightly acknowledged as key milestones.  There was much insight on the negotiation and operation of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, and some drama too concerning the Irish team (officials, clerical support, drivers, and housekeeping staff) working at the Maryfield Secretariat outside Belfast and besieged by anti-agreement unionists.  These brave people had their lives threatened for working there.   The role of RUC officers assigned to protect them, many of whom along with their families had to be rehoused for security reasons as a result, was also acknowledged.  When I joined the Department in 1986 I was assigned to Anglo-Irish Division and recall vividly the buzz on Friday as the team at Maryfield changed for the weekend, the anxious checking on logistics to ensure safe passage north.

The outsized role of John Hume featured in the RIA discussions, notably his understanding that both the EU and US could play critical roles in bringing peace.  He was “a master strategist of the first order” as one panellist put it.  Hume’s achievement in the US was to recast the issue of Northern Ireland in a way that could be embraced by Irish American Congressmen hitherto steeped in a more traditional nationalist view that the solution to Northern Ireland’s problems was unity.  It is impossible now to imagine a peace process without the Hume-Adams dialogue, a courageous and risky act by Hume for which he paid a heavy price.

Albert Reynolds was extolled for his laser focus on making progress over process, an insistence that he knowingly deployed aggressively, particularly in London.  To make progress, the killing had to stop and that was the task he had set himself.  His approach was resisted, even resented, but ultimately acknowledged by the British side as creating the breakthrough from conflict to peace.

That breakthrough took the form of the Downing Street Declaration, the seminal document of the peace process, a masterpiece of intellectual architecture that resolved the riddle of self-determination that lay at the root of partition and of the conflict.  It laid the groundwork for the Good Friday Agreement itself, brought to a deal by the unflagging determination of Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair that the moment had to be seized, that this rendezvous with history would be met.

The most notable absence from the day was Dermot Gallagher, one of three key senior civil servants on the Irish side most responsible for the peace process at the official level, advising and guiding the political level of Taoisigh, Prime Ministers, Ministers, and political leaders.  He sadly passed away last year.  Along with a senior official from the Department of the Taoiseach, Paddy Teahon, and another from the Department of Justice, Tim Dalton, this troika of officials played the leadership role at official level.  Apart from his inexhaustible energy and leadership, Dermot created the DFAT Talks Team that negotiated the various elements of the GFA text.  That was why I was there, assigned to negotiate with my opposite numbers at the NIO (the famed ‘securocrats’) on policing, justice and security issues.

The outcome of that agenda was determined in my view by the thinking of the SDLP, where Seamus Mallon and Alex Attwood acted as my guides and arbiters of whether the texts met the threshold for real and essential transformation in this critical area.  They grasped that it was in the relationship between the citizen and the justice system that the State earns its authority. It was where Northern Ireland had lost its authority with the nationalist community.  As in so many elements of the Good Friday Agreement, Mallon was a totemic figure in the negotiations, an unerring chancellor to whom we officials turned not just for guidance but for critical interventions. Indeed the SDLP as a whole was the conscience of the GFA.

The Women’s Coalition were represented at the RIA and only right too because they made a huge and largely invisible contribution to the negotiation process and outcome, ensuring that everyone moved in concert and that no one’s concerns were not addressed.  As a result most everyone at Castle Complex felt an ownership of the final document. Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was also recognised as a great energising force at the talks, her humour and directness used as battering rams against personal conceits and misplaced stubbornness when occasion demanded.

I was not sure I’d spend the whole day at Academy House.  Despite the comforting allure of elegant classicism and bookish cosiness, it was a long programme and a long day.  Yet I could not quite pull myself away.  The contributions made for a day rich in insights and overviews, an entertaining ricochet through a complex palace of memory.  I resist the temptation to inventory my take on those insights and contributions but here’s three things that stand out for me.

The first is that no one understands the peace process.  That is to say, no one individual has all the pieces.  We each did what we did at a particular time, with a particular function, in a given context,  providing continuity and adding incrementally by our efforts one more piece to the overall edifice.  I’d hazard even that of the august panellists perhaps two had the greatest grasp of what it was really about.  The peace process was so long-term and so complex that I suspect even they learned something on the day and, knowing both of them, will continue to learn more to the day they die.

What held all our efforts together over the decades, even with our individual limitations of perspective and talent, was a deep sense of the underlying plan, the entity that we were collectively trying to create.  Like ants building a colony, we took our turn knowing that the structure had to have power-sharing, had to have a north-south dimension, had to have parity of esteem, had to be rights-based, had to have a police service that in its ethos and composition reflected the society, and had to have accountability and the rule of law.

All of this had its roots in constitutional nationalism, even constitutional republicanism, brought to a potent cogency by Hume and thinkers in the SDLP who insisted that the problem was not territory or jurisdiction – so often Dublin’s default starting place – but the relationship between the people and the traditions from which they took their identity and mores.

In striving toward this end, we as officials and travellers were operating in an environment of many actors, from the security forces, intelligence services and paramilitaries (all engaged in the dark arts and their own sub-agendas not to mention sub-economies), officials, and political parties to a host of other groups like the Churches, civil society, academics, business figures, resident associations and community leaders who played a role in the peace process at its widest definition (as it should be considered and not, in other words, as “a few good men in a room”, a reductio ad absurdum I once heard from an official).

There were, too, many other factors that bulwarked the drive to peace that could not feature in a mere day’s discussion of what we as officials were doing.  There was the work of ministers and officials through the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference from 1985 onwards that addressed many of the causes of conflict and whose resolution over the years lessened the agenda for the GFA.  Another was the investment and efforts of the International Fund for Ireland and the Special EU Peace Building Programme addressing the social and economic effects of conflict and insisting that it be done through cross-community cooperation.  All reached out across the community divide to ease tensions and build trust.  Irish Government pressure to set aside Widgery and establish a new inquiry into Bloody Sunday created its own form of confidence building.  There were a succession of foreign statesmen, officials, former military figures and even senior judicial figures (like Judge Cory) who were drafted in to help at critical times, most notably Senator Mitchell. Over the years a large coterie of people made their contribution at a critical time.

The second thing that I took away – not something new to me but more deeply etched by the discussion – was the massive investment by the Irish Government in outreach and diplomacy to create the conditions for the success of the negotiations and the outcome of the GFA.  At its heart were Haughey, FitzGerald, Reynolds, and Ahern (those associated with breakthrough agreements but all Taoisigh played a part), accompanied by successive generations of Ministers and officials, outreaching to Prime Ministers (Thatcher, Major, and Blair) and backbenchers in Britain; to Presidents (notably Reagan, Carter and Clinton) and Congressmen in the US (the inexhaustible goodwill of Ted Kennedy and Tip O’Neill, of  course, but many others); to key interlocutors in Europe, and leaders in Northern Ireland from the political chieftains to the street heroes of peace building.

It was a relentless and painstaking effort over decades that brooked no faltering, no matter the frustrations and obstructions.  There were dark days in my time in Anglo-Irish Division when shattering news arrived; the Enniskillen bombing in 1987 and the assasination of Pat Finucane in 1989 stand out in my memory as events that confounded and then confirmed the need to search for peace.  I worked on a variety of cases, including Bloody Sunday, Dublin-Monaghan, Pat Finucane, Sean Brownand, and through the parades issue, came to know Rosemary Nelson well, murdered in 1999.

There was great ingenuity too used to break impasses.  Recall, for example, the Forum elections and the clever list system devised to allow smaller parties involving the loyalist community and the Women’s Coalition to be participants and make their vital contribution.  Think too of the eruption of the parades issue after the 1994 ceasefire and the creation of the Parades Commission to resolve it.

Father Alec Reid’s role and that whole seam of engagement with Sinn Féin and the IRA to broker the ceasefires was an effort without which the paradigm shift to peace could not have been achieved.  The British Army itself would have views of their own on this dimension.  Adams and McGuinness themselves undertook personal risks to advance the agenda of peace in the face of deep republican anxiety about the implications of surrendering the Armalite for the ballot box.

Ultimately it was this investment in influence in so many quarters that ensured that the people who had to do the deal that Good Friday were going to be there and do it, do it by making history.

My memory of the final two days of the 1998 negotiation is fragmentary but those fragments are clear; the texts on my remit having been agreed, trying to get some sleep in a chair as the leading politicians and officials tried to seal the deal; the rumours of trouble about decommissioning; and the fall of snow on that fateful morning that seemed ineffably meaningful.

Once the deal was done, the day was a blur of activity, relief, joy, a sense of huge accomplishment.  That night we packed into the Government jet for the short flight back to Dublin.  Our hearts and our heads told us that something historic was achieved, even if we knew too that implementation of the Agreement – complex, delicate, challenging, comprehensive – would take herculean energy and determination.  So it would prove.  The flight was barely long enough to guzzle a stiff gin and tonic before the lights of Dublin twinkled in the velvety blackness.  Somewhere down there my wife and young family hadn’t seen me for a while.

If all of these efforts had one common spur it was the victims of violence and their relatives.  As travellers we often dealt directly with them, tried to empathise with their pain and loss, tried to find some way to bring them solace through truth and justice, or maybe truth or justice, or maybe just listening.  Most of the time we met them up North but often we would accompany them to Government buildings to meet the Taoiseach of the day who would likewise try somehow to use our influence to help them.

As part of the peace process, we tried different ways to deal with the past, never successfully in any comprehensive way but always earnestly.  Sometimes we made progress but other times not; I found the Finucane case particularly recalcitrant. Poignantly for many relatives the most important thing for them is the entry concerning their lost loved ones in the magnificent Lost Lives, the inventory of the 3,636 people who died during the Troubles.

Lost Lives is a great whispering tome that should grace every desk of every politician and official who has any responsibility for maintaining the Good Friday Agreement, particularly any artful dodgers of history tempted to cut loose from facts or personal responsibility; and not as a coy prop but as volume to be consulted on occasion to remind of the price of conflict, of failure.

I said that there were three things I took away from the RIA Conference.  The third is again not novel but was reinforced by the day’s journey back through history and those parts of my past that intersected with the peace process.  It is that the GFA contains all that Ireland could and did bring to the process; the commitment to unity by consent, the need to respect diversity, the foundation of rights and rule of law, the North-South dimension and the East-West relationship, and the overarching imperative for contemporary concord to triumph over the complexities and antagonisms of our past.

As the medieval cartographers would have it, beyond the GFA’s map of civility and principles, there be dragons.  They have been sleeping for decades now. The incremental hum of peace building as barriers have fallen and attitudes soften with time’s passing keeps them quiet. We have a long way to go on reconciliation,  make no mistake about that.  But stray off this map back into old forests and those dragons will stir.  Today’s backdrop to the anniversary of the GFA is of course not triumph but anxiety.  It was not part of the discussions at the RIA but Brexit loomed large, not quite a sword of Damocles, more perhaps a lance wielded by errant knights who in their quixotic quest to recreate an illusion of Britain’s glorius past threaten those sleeping dragons.

Happy Easter

Eamonn

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Finishing Clark’s ‘Civilisation’ (1969)

Just in time, because the BBC’s new Civilisations starts this evening.

There is a definite uptick in the tempo of Clark’s last three episodes.  Clark is at his most philosophical, most engaged, and indeed most anxious.  He is progressively more urgent, as if saying ‘pay attention’, this is the period which is no longer history but which defines us.  We are still living, he says, with the consequences of the Romantic Movement.  And so right he is: without the Romantic Movement, neither Trump nor Brexit would have been possible, not the ethno-nationalist movements that prefigure both.

The Worship of Nature and The Fallacies of Hope are titles that reveal Clark’s anxieties from the outset.  He can see where all this freedom and sentiment is heading.  After recounting the evolution of the French Revolution into the Terror, he looks out a window of the Sorbonne and we see footage of students gently mustering for a protest.  Do they know what they want, he wonders.  Be careful what you ask for: There are montages of street violence in 1848 and 1968 in various European cities.  Dramatically, Clark walks from a perfectly proportioned 18th century room to a portico and a stormy vista of a sea at night.  Great forces are being released in Europe and revolution, fear, and war follow.

It’s not that Clark exactly blames Jean Jacques Rousseau for his fateful reverie in nature and the consequences that followed.  In fact he greatly admires Beethoven, Byron, Gericault, Rodin, and Balsac for their unflinching genius.  He does though see Rousseau’s moment of oblivious immersion in nature as a catalyst, igniting pre-existing inclinations and a series of consequences that Clark reckons as fateful and possibly dire.  Clark holds that the loss of religious belief in the minds of intelligent seventeenth century men had to be replaced by something.  That something was nature, a belief that somehow nature offered both the sublime and personal truth.

It was in cities that man was corrupted by inequalities and greed said Rousseau, seeming or deigning to forget that cities are the cradle of civilisation.  Rousseau elevated the noble savage as the supremely virtuous man.  Clark enjoys invoking the blistering distain of Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade, and Ben Johnson for this tosh.  The supposed Elysian societies of the South Pacific collapsed quickly under the mere presence of European man, Clark notes.  These could not be, he said, civilisations in the way in which he had been using the word. Yet powerful tosh it was.

The Romantic Movement drew its power from the personal freedom it offered.  Europe was a constrained, illiberal, and hierarchical society in the eighteenth century.  It suppressed emotion under straitened social mores.  Reason itself, with its symmetry, proportions, and continuities, was confining. When an intellectual movement in the form of the Romantic Movement offered its benediction to releasing emotion, the constraints were off.  Sentiment itself was valid, what you felt was the real truth.  In comparison, truth arrived at by reason and logic was spurious and artificial.

Here is the real problem with the Romantic Movement; it served as the essential precursor to romantic nationalism and ethno-nationalism.   The Romantic Movement fused with a search for identity as European nation states moved from monarchy to democracy.  In an age of nation states, national economies, mass transport, mass population centres, mass media, and mass mobilisations for war, a unifying identity was a necessity.  National identity had to invent itself.

What did it mean to be Scottish, German, or Irish? This search with its focus on ethno-nationalism sent sober men in search of the ancient past.  They found Ossian’s fabulous ancient epic poem Fingal which was likened to Homer and inspired some of the world’s most powerful men, from Jefferson to Napoleon.  Napoleon, notes Clark, carried an illustrated copy on all his campaigns.

Yet the ‘discovery’ was a fake, a fabrication by an enterprising Scotsman who borrowed heavily from Irish mythology.  (MacPherson even invented a new name – Fiona – as part of his elaborate construction.)

Clark’s final episode is called Heroic Materialism.  He doesn’t mean it as a compliment. True the nineteenth century invented humanitarianism as well as gigantic engineering.  It introduced a revolutionary new instinct called kindness.  Yet technology and weapons of mass destructions are the tools of despots. He passes over the world wars fleetingly and, oddly, doesn’t refer to the Holocaust.  That rankled a tad and I wondered why the omission – I remember vividly Jacob Bronowski’s stunning visit to Auschwitz in his series The Ascent of Man.  Let’s move on.

In prefacing a confession of his values as the series concludes, Clark calls himself, with a little pride, a ‘stick-in-the-mud’.   I couldn’t really fault his values. He is heartened by the young students he sees around him and thinks that despite nearly destroying ourselves twice in one century, we will survive.  Yet Clark cannot see materialism, no matter how heroic, as a good enough end in itself.

In his final and compelling summing up, he quotes Yeats (“who was more like a man of genius than any man I’ve ever known”); The Second Coming in fact, the bit about the best lacking all conviction/ the worst are full of passionate intensity.   “The moral and intellectual failure of Marxism has left us with no alternative to heroic materialism” he concludes.  We can be optimistic but hardly joyous at this prospect, he concludes.  Has anything happened in the intervening fifty years since the broadcast to invalidate this lapidary judgement and its two inspirations?  I don’t think so.

Does Civilisation (1969) stand up?  No question in my mind, with the caveat that it is western civilisation (a description Clark uses suggesting that he knew that this was really his topic). Clark is a master of his brief and declaratory about his values.  And, despite witily dismissing predictions, Clark managed one that has stood the test of time.  How will Civilisations (2018) compare?  Let’s see.

Eamonn

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On Watching Clark’s ‘Civilisation’

Clark outdoes Rex Harrison as Professor ‘iggins.  He rolls and rounds his r’s as if they’re chunky pieces of wood that must be honed into spheres.  He manages to have four distinct syllables in ‘naturally’.  Each word quickly takes its place on the stage of his sentence and takes a bow.

Like his sentences, his body is unhurried and he takes his time to prop or fold himself into position no matter where he is; at the foot of David, on a mountainside, on a rock beside a river that flows by a Roman aqueduct, or wandering a country lane in sight of Urbino.

Clark is unhurried in mind and body.  There are longeurs where he does not speak, where the visuals and music are allowed time and we time to pause.  And when he does speak it is to offer a lifetime’s distilled thinking, the essence leavened with his personal insight, connecting at the right time the nature of the subject he is addressing with the lived life.

Yet unhurried, he covers so much ground under elegant and resonant titles that show a deeply organised approach to his massive subject: Romance and Reality, Man: The Measure of All Things, The Hero as Artist, Protest and Communication, Grandeur and Obedience, etc.

Clark wistfully admires the men of the twelfth century, all those pious cathedral building kings, those erudite churchmen, those anonymous stonemasons full of reverence and craft.  He admires them because they laid the foundation of modern European civilisation and did so with energy and confidence.  We are, even if we know it or not, still in their debt.

Clark wanders around renaissance Italy recounting the ferocious conniving of popes and princes, and the equally ferocious will of its artists, like the volcanic creative force of Michelangelo, the sword-wielding-book-loving Duke of Urbino, and the standalone and out of time genius of da Vinci with his demonic curiosity and boundless genious in all things.  But you sense too that he would be rather afraid to have lived amongst them.

In The Light of Experience, you find yourself eventually in territory that he ill-favours.  Under the protection of the subtitle ‘a personal view’, Clark lets you know what he thinks of the preoccupation with money and the beginnings of industrialisation.  After admiring one of the finest rooms ever built, he points to an untidy dirty smudge of buildings lurking behind the spacious grandeur of Greenwich naval hospital.  If his pronunciation of capitalism is odd (ca’pit’ilism) you grasp clearly that a preoccupation with making money as a supreme societal endeavour rankles, even as he admits that some extra cash is a necessity of art.  The problem is that an excess of money, no less than an excess of state power, is incompatible with an art or architecture to which the individual can relate.  He points to Versailles and the neo-classicism of 17th century Paris. Hard to fault him.

No disguising his delight in the period of his supreme episode so far, The Smile of Reason.  Here is a time of men and women (pointing to the tactful ladies of the French salon who nurtured civilisation in conversation) in which Clark would have happily lived. Their preoccupations and inspirations are close to his own. No surprise because Clark wears the smile of reason throughout the series.

Next he turns to The Worship of Nature and one of Britain’s few genuine contributions to Europe, the English garden, an insult he throws off with so light a touch you hardly notice it.

Eamonn

 

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Fake News: The Sinking of the Athenia, not the Titanic, is the Metaphor of our Time

The sinking of the Titanic is the most popular maritime disaster, an endless source of fascination and metaphor.  Yet it tells us less about our times than the fate of the Athenia.

Depending on the time of year, the SS Athenia of the Donaldson Atlantic Line regularly plied the route from Glasgow to Montreal or Halifax carrying passengers and emigrants.  This time she was headed to Montreal.  After a stop at Liverpool, she made her way around the Irish coast and headed northwest setting a course to take her between Rockall and Inishtrahull, well off her usual track.  This was because it was September 1939 and all merchant ships had been ordered off their usual routes since 22 August.  Though Captain James Cooke and all aboard knew that war had just been declared between Britain and Germany, the trip was deemed safe because as a passenger ship the Athenia was protected by the London Naval Treaty of 1930 which Germany had not ratified but had agreed to abide by its terms.  Under those terms, passengers and crew of merchant ships and passenger liners were first to be put in places of safety before their vessel was sunk.

Oberleutant Frist-Julius Lemp was in command of U-30 based out of Wilhelmshaven on patrol in the North Atlantic since 27 August.  He spotted the Athenia in the late afternoon and followed her for three hours.  It was by all accounts a beautiful evening with a sky shimmering with moonlight and stars, though a heavy swell surged.  As passengers finished the first dinner sitting, they had no idea that their lives depended on what one man would do in an iron vessel in the sea beneath them.

We do not know what went through this young man’s head (he was twenty-six at the time).  All we can say is that Lemp claimed that the zigzag course and its unusual location indicated to him that the ship in his sights was an armed merchant cruiser.  He ordered a torpedo attack.  On board the ship, Quartermaster Bowman saw the silhouette of a submarine against the moonlight.  Some passengers heard a hissing sound as if something passed under the hull.  Then a second torpedo found its mark near the engine room, killing many there,  in the nearby main stairwell, and on the deck nearby.  It was Sunday evening, at 8:50pm, and the second sitting for dinner had just begun when the explosion occurred.  The lights went out and the passengers rushed in panic onto the decks.  The ship was doomed, and the lives of its remaining passengers from its complement of 1,103 passengers, including some 500 Jewish refugees, and 315 crew were in serious jeopardy.

Captain Cooke and his crew were calm and professional.   A distress signal was sent.  They restored calm and the evacuation was orderly.  Mercifully the safety systems on board contained the damage and the ship stayed afloat for hours, though listing.  This certainly avoided a far higher if not almost complete loss of life.  In heavy seas, lifeboats were readied.  Witnesses spotted the submarine on the surface and reported that it fired one or two shells at the stricken vessel, blowing off a mast.  A lifeboat already loaded with passengers broke from its davits causing more fatalities.  Passengers jumped into the sea. The heavy swells meant that lifeboats had to be rowed and bailed; women grabbed oars and used their shoes to bail. Exposure was likely as passengers lacked overcoats and were soaked; some were over ten hours on the open sea.

The destroyers HMS Electra, HMS Fame, and HMS Escort, a Swedish yacht called the Southern Cross, a US cargo ship City of Flint, and a Norwegian tanker the MS Knute Nelson arrived at the scene within hours.  HMS Fame was dispatched to find the U-boat.  Lifeboats were by then spread out, lit by flares, and while calling for help made their way to the  ships nearest them.  One lifeboat tied up only metres from the exposed propeller of the MS Knute Nelson and in the confusion the ship started up her engines.  The great thrashing propeller sucked in the lifeboat, pulverising it and killing fifty.  Some hours later another lifeboat capsized behind the Southern Cross, with ten fatalities.  A Jewish-Russian couple saw their two sons drown.  A young woman was pulled from the water into another life boat but screamed “my baby” and leapt back into the sea. At one point a great school of whales “plunged around the boats”. Others died in the transfers to the destroyers as the sea jostled the lifeboats against the towering hulls.  At 10 am the following morning, the Athenia’s bow reared up and ship sank vertically beneath the waves. In all, 98 passengers and 19 crew died.  28 of the fatalities were U.S. citizens.

The MS Knute Nelson made for Galway with 441 passengers and 90 crew on board.  It arrived at 9:30 am on Tuesday 5 September.  Ten were stretchered off the tender City of Galway, four seriously injured.  The survivors were greeted by a warm reception from hundreds of well-wishers along the dockside.  Nurses from Central Hospital Galway and the Army Medical Corps were on hand and a local committee had prepared food and accommodation in local hotels and guest houses.  VIPs included Dr. Browne, the Bishop of Galway, the Mayors of Galway and Limerick, and the U.S. Minister to Ireland, John D. Cudahy.  Cudahy comforted J.D. Wilkes who broke down, having lost his wife and two children. The Irish Times reported: “It was a motley and somewhat hysterical crowd that trooped down the gangway to the tender…. Men, women and children were in almost every stage of undress, having lost their clothes and belongings.  Seven women were attired in men’s dungarees and trousers lent them by the crew of the Knute Nelson.”

Passengers arriving in Glasgow told similar stories; of the explosion, seeing the submarine, of the shelling, of the desperate rescue and the heaving seas.  Some spoke avidly, some were too traumatised to say anything.  Some smiled at the memory of the whales.  All were sure that is was a torpedo, not a mine or an aircraft.

In London, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy was already swamped trying to organise the evacuation of U.S. citizens from wartime Britain when news arrived of the sinking of the Athenia.  It hugely complicated the effort to get Americans home from Europe.  Since he could not leave London to help the survivors landing at Glasgow, he dispatched his second son.  John F. Kennedy toured the hotels to visit the survivors, get first-hand accounts and assure them that America was there to protect their interests.  With cameras filming, he met with 150 survivors in a hotel and assured them that a liner had been dispatched from America to bring them home.  They would be safe under an American flag.  They protested, not surprisingly, that they would only travel home in a convoy.  JFK’s assurances were to little avail initially.  As reported by The Irish Times: ‘“We definitely refuse to go until we have a convoy,” declared the American college girls among the rescued.  “You have seen what they will do to us.”’  Another pointedly referred to Amilia Earhart saying “a year ago the whole Pacific fleet was sent out for one woman flier.”  Kennedy said he would inform his father.

Eventually most of the survivors were convinced to travel on board the Orizaba though only after its sides were painted with the Stars and Stripes and it was flood lit during the night. They landed at New York on Wednesday 27 September, met by a large crowd some of whom hoped that their loved ones were not in fact lost, that some good news might be discovered.  American Express doled out cash and the Red Cross was on hand to help the survivors who had arrived without luggage or passports.

The news of the sinking quickly headlined around the world.  Details of the attack and the fate of the survivors were followed closely.  The attack was condemned as barbarous and contrary to the laws of war.  The news created a sensation in the United States and Canada.  The finger of blame pointed firmly at Germany but Germany claimed that it did not have a submarine in the area.  Grand Admiral Raeder appeared to believe this in the absence of any confirmation from a U-Boat.  Germany issued a statement pointing to the likelihood of a mine.  The New York Times editorialised; “Now it is real.  In the first twenty four hours of general hostilities….we saw the pattern set…. Part of the ordeal will be waiting for the truth behind conflicting claims, confused reports and veils of military secrecy.”  It noted Churchill’s announcement of German culpability but also Germany’s written assurance that the ship must have struck a mine: “It would indeed have been crass stupidity for Germany on the first day of the war to engage a great neutral Power by torpedoing a ship carrying Americans, and it is equally hard to believe that a British liner under naval escort, in waters presumably well charted, should run into a British-laid mine.”

On board U-boat 30, Lemp appeared to have realised his mistake almost immediately.  He did not enter the action in the log and swore his crew to secrecy.  Escaping the anti-submarine searches, he continued his raiding.  On 11 September he torpedoed and sunk the cargo ship Blairlogie.  All thirty crew survived.  On 14 September Lemp spotted the Belfast built and registered Fanad Head.  He gave chase and seized the ship after putting a shot across its bows.  With the crew and passengers safely dispatched on life boats, Lemp took a risky course of action by pulling alongside and sending a prize crew aboard.  British destroyers and aircraft arrived and in desperate hours of attacks and evasions, crashing aircraft and blasting depth charges, U-30 finally sunk Fanad Head and escaped, heavily damaged and with two RAF crew members on board captured after they had ditched.

After a stop at Reykjavik, Lemp arrived back at Wilhemshaven on 27 September.  He confessed his unwelcome news to Admiral Doenitz.  He had sunk the Athenia, claiming that he thought it was an armed merchant ship.  Doenitz knew he had a problem and that admission of Germany’s responsibility might have the gravest of consequences.  He sent Lemp to Berlin to explain himself to Raeder.  Raeder then briefed Hitler.  In the propaganda war for world opinion in which Germany sought to paint Britain as an antagonist and to ensure that America stayed neutral, it was best to cloud culpability in confusion.  Hitler decided to continue the denial.  The log was altered and Lemp escaped a court-martial.

It hard to know what to make of Lemp’s claim.  The Kreigsmarine were well aware that shipping out of Britain had been ordered to avoid established routes. He had followed the Athenia for three hours.  He had ample time to identify the nature of the craft he was tracking.  Other U-boat captains were well aware of the rules of war under which they operated and they were in many instances commended for their gallantry is ensuring that the crews of merchant ships were seen to safety.  Lemp’s behaviour in ensuring the safety of the crews of the other ships he attacked in the following weeks observed the norms of ensuring the crews’ safety.  Perhaps he had genuinely made a mistake and only realised it when he approached the Athenia after the torpedo attack.  Then why shell it as witnesses reported?  Lemp did not survive the war to tell his version or face justice.  His death was shrouded in some mystery with claims that he was shot by a boarding party or that he committed suicide by going down with his scuttled vessel, U-110, in May 1941.

In the following weeks, Germany conquered Poland and signed the Pact of Steel with Russia.  Hitler turned his eyes to the unwelcome western front and the British Expeditionary Force in France.  If he was to expand the Third Reich eastward, he had to safeguard his rear.  British forces had to be expelled from continental Europe before he turned the full might of the Wehrmacht against the Slavs.   Yet he feared antagonising the U.S. to the point that it might abandon its neutrality.  Like the Lusitania before it, it was feared that the sinking of the SS Athenia might tilt the balance of American opinion.  Yet like the Lusitania, it was hoped that it might not.  For weeks Germany maintained its innocence, contrary to all the eye-witness evidence.

With plans afoot for a major offensive on the Western front, Hitler and Goebbels conferred; it was time for the big lie.  In a national radio broadcast on 22 October, Goebbels presented himself as the prosecuting attorney, in the description of The New York Times.  He declared that the British had sunk the Athenia on Churchill’s orders and that his silence would be his shame.  Goebbels gave a detailed account of how it was done.  A bomb on board was exploded on a radio signal from Churchill.  But it was botched and Royal Navy ships were sent to sink it.  He declared that Churchill stood condemned in the court of public opinion and that he answer the charges that Britain had been responsible, that Royal Navy destroyers had not come to the rescue of the Athenia but had fired on it and sunk it.  Goebbels asserted that German passengers had been refused boarding in Liverpool as part of the conspiracy to ensure that blame affixed to Germany.  Smoking had been banned to avoid setting off the bomb prematurely.  Churchill’s conspiracy, he explained, was designed as part of its war with Germany, to turn opinion against it and induce the U.S. to join Britain and France as an ally.  Germany, he declared, would not let the matter rest until Churchill confessed.  “Stand rascal, and answer us!” They knew it would take time: Churchill, he asserted, “belongs to that type of man who has to have his wisdom teeth knocked from his head before he will give up lying.” The broadcast was repeated on radio wavelengths, disseminated widely in a number of languages, and the ‘account’ published in Germany.

The fake news had its effect in sowing doubts. Maybe it was a Russian submarine, some speculated. As Germany claimed credit for sinking further merchant ships and tankers and as U-boat commanders who sunk the HMS Courageous and HMS Royal Oak (with combined fatalities in excess of 1,300) were treated as celebrity war heroes on return to Germany, the significance of the denial about the Athenia was lost.

It is an odd thing that getting caught out lying about a crime can be seen as a greater shame than an outright admission of a crime.  The more elaborate the deception, the more determined the incentive to avoid exposure.   For the Nazis, it seemed that to get caught out in one lie might lead logically to doubts about its whole ideology. The further removed belief is from reality, the more insistent the doctrine and the denial of inconvenient facts.  Despite all of the atrocities committed by Germany during the war, including the Holocaust, there seemed to be a particular shame attached to the sinking of the Athenia, or perhaps more accurately about the lying about it.  Germany maintained the lie even in defeat.  It was only in 1946 during the Nuremburg trials that Doenitz, faced with the testimony of a U-30 crew member who was on board when the Athenia was attacked, finally admitted the obvious truth that Germany had in fact sunk the ship, that the accusations by Goebbels to the contrary were part of an audacious bid to disseminate what today we’d call fake news.  By then of course, what constituted war crimes had taken on a whole new dimension.

At the time, the sinking of the Athenia convinced many that the war had started in earnest, that headlines about peace offerings in the weeks that followed were mere posturing.  The reports in the Irish press from Galway, like those in media around the world, were detailed and graphic, well conveying the telling dishevelment and trauma of the disembarking survivors.  War was a brutal affair not just for the military but for the innocent civilian, if anyone needed reminding.  There were to be no safe hiding places beyond the jurisdiction of the neutral state.  The rules of war did not necessarily apply and the headlines did not necessarily reflect the reality. In this, the U.S. and Ireland as neutral states shared a perspective.  The U.S. clamped down on its citizens travelling to Europe.  American liners increased fares to Europe by as much as a third.  As more ships were attacked in the Atlantic in the autumn of 1939, and more survivors were rescued and landed at Irish harbours around the coast, the Irish public could not but be aware that they lived in proximity to a deadly struggle between European superpowers.  Neutrality, fragile and all as it was, must have seemed like a good option.

The sinking of the SS Athenia is largely forgotten today.  It has not entered the popular imagination.  Maybe the fake news surrounding is a complicating factor or maybe the fact that the mystery of its fate was revealed in 1946.  Even the Lusitania retains some public fascination.  At almost 1,200 the fatalities were far higher.  Compared to that ‘only’ 98 died on the Athenia.  Questions hovered unresolved about whether in fact the Lusitania carried ammunition; unanswered questions have a long life.

Yet even the fate of the Lusitania pales beside the luminous light cast by the Titanic over the public imagination.  The Titantic’s combination of fate, coincidence, and the morality of class deciding the preponderance of fatalities mesmerises us.  We see in her a microcosm of a form of society that was doomed.  The iceberg is the metaphor for all unbidden and unforeseen calamities in the face of human fecklessness.  How fitting that her distress flares were thought to be celebrations. The random things that sank the Titanic churn in our heads – the ship’s speed, the calm waters, the lack of binoculars, and the attempt to wheel away that just magnified the damage to a fatal degree.  Change one of these things and the ship might have stayed afloat.    She was on her maiden voyage, the fresh paint still pungent.  They said it was unsinkable.  In the sinking of the Titanic, we detect the revenge of the gods.

None of this applies to the Athenia. Its story is human and venal.  There is no fate, just bad luck.  There are no gods, only one man with the power to sink a ship who opted to use that power.  Some weird confluence of impulses compelled him to a great crime.  An instinct for survival, for exculpation after the exhilaration of the act, led him to conspire with his crew to conceal it.  Perhaps he too realised that the consequences for his country might be grave if responsibility was admitted.  And while he was driven to admit what he did to his superiors, albeit he had little grounds to deny it, the system found common cause with him in maintaining the fiction.  You can sense in Goebbels’s insistent accusation against Churchill the audacity, the glee of the big lie. And you can see too that other governments and the public hesitated to apportion blame in the face of the denials and the counter accusations, even in the face of overwhelming testimony.  The power of the big lie is that it begs the question ‘what if…?’  And of course back then there was a widespread and deep faith in government.

From this perspective, the sinking of the Athenia is a more compelling tale for our times than the ineffable qualities of the Titanic.  The Athenia, not the Titanic, is the true metaphor for our time.

 

Eamonn

 

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