If there’s one thing a poet is good for, it’s memorable circumlocution, which is why Michael D Higgins (the D is crucial; people wouldn’t know who you were talking about if you mentioned Michael Higgins), the Irish president and ongoing poet, has been in his element during this state visit to Britain. ‘Ireland and Britain live in both the shadow and in the shelter of one another, and so it has been since the dawn of history’, he said during his speech at Windsor Castle. ‘The shadow of our past has become the shelter of our present’. That was good. The Queen was hardly to be outdone: the gag about it taking someone ‘of Irish descent’ to make her jump from a helicopter was lovely. ‘This,’ as Miriam Lord of the Irish Times put it, ‘was the best mutual admiration society ever’.
It didn’t compare to the Queen’s visit to Ireland three years ago, but the same thing struck me about this trip as hers, when even William Hague and George Osborne looked like they were having a really good time. It’s that Ireland and Britain really don’t feel like they’re foreign to each other. Michael D may have gladdened the shade of Parnell when he spoke in parliament about ‘a closeness that once seemed unachievable’ but to be honest, it’s a closeness that feels more familial than anything, and includes episodes of fratricide – I’m coming on to one of them – as well as ones like this. I may be biased by my own background, but I don’t think that the Irish in England are felt as being much different from the Scots or Welsh here; there’s probably more chance of a family connection. The Queen looks more at home among horsey people in Cork than she does surrounded by loyalists in Belfast.
But history isn’t something to be moved rapidly on from, towards, as the Queen put it, ‘a brighter, more settled future’. That would be letting us rather too easily off the hook. The centenary commemorations for the outbreak of the Great War have overshadowed the events which preceded it, and which go a long way to explaining how we got where we are now. It is the reason why the Irish question wasn’t resolved a hundred years ago by parliamentary means. It’s the centenary of the passing of the Third Home Rule bill, which was nullified from the outset by the political classes’ capitulation to militant Unionism. It was when violence and the threat of violence trumped constitutional politics. Most people with a passing interest in these things are dimly aware, in a Downton Abbey way, about the Home Rule question and the opposition to it in Ulster. But the sheer extent of the revolt against the workings of parliament on the part of the Unionists – we’re talking gunrunning from Germany and mass paramilitary forces – and the astonishing way the army, and the Tory party under Bonar Law, backed them, really hasn’t been taken on board, not properly, except by historians. It was the subversion of parliamentary democracy through arms and mutiny but there’s been a kind of collective amnesia about it on the part of Tories in particular.
In fact the events in Sarajevo came as rather a welcome relief to ministers, an opportunity for them to kick the Irish question right into the long grass. Asquith, the prime minister, for instance, wrote to his friend, Venetia Stanley on 28 July: ‘What you say apropos of the War cutting off one’s head to get rid of a headache is very good. Winston [Churchill] on the other hand is all for this way of escape from Irish troubles, and when things looked rather better last night, he exclaimed moodily that it looked after all as if we were in for a ‘bloody peace’.’
The implications of all remain quite devastating for anyone inclined to complacency about Britain’s model of parliamentary democracy, which is why it really should be remembered. The Irish historian, Ronan Fanning, subtitled his new book, Fatal Path, about these events as: ‘British Government and Irish Revolution’. Except the revolution wasn’t Republican, but Unionist. ‘The term “revolution”,’ he writes, ‘is rarely ascribed to the Ulster Unionists’ successful resistance to the third Home Rule Bill. Yet, given their rejection of parliamentary authority as expressed between 1910 and 1914 through the government’s democratic mandate in the House of Commons, in the creation and arming of the 90,000-strong Ulster Volunteer Force, in the establishment of a provisional government in Belfast in September, 1913, and in the mutiny threatened by an elite corps of British Army officers … and endorsed by the British Conservative Party in March 1914, a revolution it undoubtedly was.’
Certainly, George Bernard Shaw, along with other observers, thought so at the time. In the 1912 preface to his Irish play, John Bull’s Other Island (the one that amused Edward VII so much, he broke his chair laughing) he wrote about the shattering of his illusion that ‘Parliament … was still what it had been in the heyday of Gladstonian Liberalism, when it was utterly inconceivable that an Act of constitutional reform which had been duly passed and assented to by the Crown could be dropped into the waste paper basket because a handful of ladies and gentlemen objected to it, and the army officers’ messes blustered mutinously against it.’ One reason why they did was simple sectarianism; most of the players, from Bonar Law to Lloyd George and Winston Churchill had an instinctive antipathy to Roman Catholicism.
Inevitably, these extraordinary events were obliterated by the war, though they were enough to undermine the credibility of the Irish parliamentary party. And later, the Troubles obscured their own origins. But when the Queen said – astonishingly – at the Windsor banquet to the Irish president that ‘my family and my government will stand alongside you…throughout the anniversaries of the war and of the events that led to the creation of the Irish Free state’, this has to be one of them.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.