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.




1 Comment

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One response to “Power without Authority in Ireland, III: 1800 and the Secular Vacuum

  1. Gerard Corr

    Eamonn. It is very strongly argued and persuasive.

    Sent from my iPhone


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