John Redmond is probably one of the more divisive figures in Irish history and rightly so. The patrician head of the Irish Parliamentary Party, whose followers eulogised him with an almost messianic fervour, he was the self-proclaimed “leader of Nationalist Ireland” who bullied and cajoled thousands of young Irish men into sacrificing their lives in the service of the United Kingdom from 1914-18. While detesting “militant” nationalism at home he was a committed proponent of Britain’s militarist nationalism abroad, a devout imperialist whose desire for Home Rule was driven as much by self-serving political ambitions as a desire to see justice for the Irish people as a whole. Like his Westminster colleagues Redmond believed that Ireland was the personal fiefdom of the Irish Parliamentary Party and acted accordingly. Dissent was rarely tolerated and when rival forces arose, like the disparate Irish Volunteers in 1913, they were quickly appropriated or side-lined.
The innate conservatism of the Waterford-born MP shaped his political, economic and social world-view. He sought limited autonomy for Ireland within the so-called United Kingdom based upon exploitative class lines little different from those under the existing Dublin Castle administration allied to the diktats of the Roman Catholic church. The conformist, anti-pluralist state shaped in the 1920s by the Irish counter-revolution and the political forerunners of Fine Gael was in many ways the embodiment of Redmond’s constitutional ambitions, albeit with considerably more independence than he would have felt comfortable with.
Given John Redmond’s deplorable track record on the separation of church and state, women’s rights, labour rights, and opposition to health and welfare laws, it is surprising to see Rónán O’Brien, a Labour Party activist and former advisor to several Labour ministers in government (at the cost of €114,000 per annum, a chairde!), defending Redmond’s tarnished political legacy in the Irish Times. Albeit in a self-defeating manner:
“It is not difficult to understand why a man who called on Irish nationalists not only to defend the island of Ireland during the first World War but to volunteer for the British army has been written out of a national narrative based on Easter 1916.
It is not difficult to see either how a man whose Irishness was matched by an affinity to the British Empire was forgotten in independent Ireland.
And it is not difficult to see how a man hostile to women’s suffrage (unlike his brother) would be disregarded by at least half our population.
But none of these things should detract from the contribution made by him and his party to Irish independence.”
Actually, I think you’ll find that they should do so.