In recent days we have witnessed the bizarre spectacle of Dublin city council erecting a 1916-2016 centenary banner at the historic Bank of Ireland building in College Green, featuring the images of late 18th, 19th and early 20th century Irish politicians Henry Grattan, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond. It has caused much controversy because, 1) none of the men pictured on the display had anything to do with the staging of the revolutionary Easter Rising of 1916, and, 2) all four men spent their political careers fighting the demand that Ireland should become a sovereign and independent republic.
The seeming celebration of the life of John Redmond, the autocratic leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), has caused particular controversy given his active opposition to those who mounted the insurrection in the capital and elsewhere across the country. Redmond, unlike those who proclaimed a thirty-two county Irish Republic on the 24th of April 1916, was a staunch imperialist who favoured limited self-rule for the island within the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, not outside of it. It was the Wexford-born MP who accepted the principle of “partition” in the years before the uprising, dividing the country into rival twenty-three county and nine county regions ruled from Dublin and Belfast, but under the authority of London. It was John Redmond and his colleagues who surrendered to the separatist terrorism and the threat of terrorism from the British unionist minority on the island in the first two decades of the 20th century, a campaign of artificial division that gained full fruition in the early 1920s (in a very real sense the paracolony of “Northern Ireland” is as much the legacy of the supposed nationalist, Redmond, as it is of his unionist peer, Edward Carson).
Redmond’s own words to his colleagues in London, issued three years before the insurrection in Dublin, outlined his political vision for Ireland:
“We will under Home Rule, devote our attention to education, reform of the Poor Law, and questions of that kind which are purely domestic, which are, if you like, hum-drum Irish questions, and the only way we will attempt to interfere in any Imperial question will be by our representatives on the floor of the Imperial Parliament in Westminster doing everything in our power to increase the strength and glory of what will then be our empire at long last; and by sending in support of the Empire the strong arms and brave hearts of Irish soldiers and Irish sailors… That is our ambition.”
As the President of the Irish National Volunteers (INV), the paramilitary wing of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond specifically offered the services of his private army to the British colonial administration based in Dublin Castle and its occupation forces to defeat the would-be revolutionaries of 1916. Not only was this offer taken up in several counties but the IPP boss and the UK prime minster, Herbert Asquith, boasted of the matter in speeches given to the “Imperial Parliament” at Westminster. Not content with persuading, cajoling and bullying tens of thousands of Irish men and boys into the service of the British Empire, Redmond and his acolytes actually intended to use the INV in a war of Irishman on Irishman, of Green on Green, in defence of the United Kingdom’s authority over the island of Ireland (and using, ironically, the thousands of rifles and handguns that Redmond and his IPP faction secretly smuggled into the country from the Continent, in addition to those purchased in Britain).
How does a reactionary statesman, the self-declared “leader of nationalist Ireland”, who in later life rarely ventured beyond his palatial home and gentlemen’s club in London, a figure who repeatedly co-opted and split Irish sovereigntist movements to his own political benefit, who carved out a private army to enforce the policies of his party, who used the allied street-thugs of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) to make the two general elections of 1910 the most violent in living memory, who became a director and financier of gun-smuggling, who gloried in the sacrificial blood of dead Germans only slightly less than he did of dead Irish men, who would have led Ireland to an intra-nationalist civil war in pursuit of so-called “home rule” after World War One, how does such a man find himself being elevated by his modern apologists to the company of such historical greats as Patrick Pearse and James Connolly? The British parliamentarian who would have become the Marshal Pétain, a leader of a glorified Vichy Ireland, under imperial oversight?
Historical denialism, “revisionism”, has become the contra-republican virus running through the “official” celebrations of the one hundred year anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916. The College Green banner is simply the latest, if especially egregious, version of that disease made public.
From a debate in the House of Commons, May 3rd 1916, following the executions by firing squad of the President and two senior members of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic:
“The PRIME MINISTER: …I ought, perhaps, to inform the House that I have received a telegram from the Headquarters in Dublin stating that three of the signatories to the Republican Proclamation, namely P. H. Pearse, Thomas J. Clarke, and Thomas MacDonagh, were tried by court martial, found guilty and sentenced to death by being shot. The sentence was duly carried out this morning.
Mr. JOHN REDMOND: I hope the House under the peculiar circumstances of the moment will accord me a generous indulgence while I utter just two or three sentences. It is unnecessary for me to say that the whole of this incident in Ireland has been to me a misery and a heart breaking.
…This outbreak, happily, seems to be over. It has been dealt with, with firmness, which was not only right, but it was the duty of the Government to so deal with it. As the rebellion, or the outbreak, call it what you like, has been put down with firmness, I do beg the Government, and I speak from the very bottom of my heart and with all my earnestness, not to show undue hardship or severity to the great masses of those who are implicated, on whose shoulders there lies a guilt far different from that which lies upon the instigators and promoters of the outbreak. Let them, in the name of God, not add this to the miserable, wretched memories of the Irish people, to be stored up perhaps for generations, but let them deal with it in such a spirit of leniency as was recently exhibited in South Africa by General Botha, and in that way pave the way to the possibility which the right Hon. Gentleman (Mr. Birrell) hinted at, that out of the ashes of this miserable tragedy there may spring up something which will resound to the future happiness of Ireland and the future complete and absolute unity of this Empire. I beg of the Government, having put down this outbreak with firmness, to take only such action as will leave the least rankling bitterness in the minds of the Irish people, both in Ireland and elsewhere throughout the world.”
From a debate in the House of Commons, May 11th 1916, a contribution by Laurence Ginnell, an independent nationalist MP for the constituency of Westmeath North, laying the blame for the 1916 executions at the door of the leaders of the Irish Parliamentary Party:
“Mr. LAURENCE GINNELL: What I have to say on this occasion must necessarily differ from that to which you have listened, addressing, as I am, an assembly stained with the blood of some of my dearest friends for no crime but that of attempting to do for Ireland what you urge the Belgians to do for Belgium. I have to begin with a correction of phraseology. In all the preceding speeches this House has been bombarded with the expression Sinn Feiners. There are no such people in Ireland, and never have been, as Sinn Fein Volunteers. The Sinn Fein movement is purely a political, economic, and non-military movement. There have not been in the Irish Volunteer body one per cent of the members of the Sinn Fein body. The Sinn Fein body was and remains an economic and non-military body. The name was adopted and applied solely for the purpose of opprobrium, solely for a purpose corresponding to that which impels the people and the Press of this country to call the Germans ‘Huns’.
The expression Sinn Fein Volunteers is no more correct than it would be for me to call you, Mr. Speaker, and all the English Members of this House English Huns; and if you allow that expression to be used, I shall reclaim my right to use and apply in this House the corresponding epithet. The name was transferred as a term of opprobrium by political parties and leaders and their Press, and they alone had access to this country, and hence extended the name here into this House. The name was applied on the same principle as that on which the so-called Irish Government has been guided for some years past. It was applied by and under the authority of the Hon. Member for Waterford (Mr. J. Redmond), the Hon. Member for East Mayo (Mr. Dillon), the Hon. Member for West Belfast (Mr. Devlin), and the Hon. Member for the Scotland Division for Liverpool (Mr. T. P. O’Connor); all Pressmen and controllers of the Press, and what has taken place in Ireland is unquestionably the result of the advice and guidance of those four men who have left their seats rather than wait to hear the truth spoken to their faces in this House.
In pursuance of that I desire to call the attention of the House, or so much of it as remains, to the fact that the shooting of those men in cold blood in Dublin was suggested publicly so long ago as last October by the Hon. Member for Waterford (Mr. J. Redmond). On him and on his colleagues is the guilt of those innocent lives, in conjunction with the occupants of that Treasury Bench who fled when I rose. The murder of my friends is not a becoming subject for the Speaker of the House of Commons to smile at. [HON. MEMBERS: “Order!” and “Withdraw!”] In the New York “World” of last October appears an interview given to a representative of that journal in this City by the Hon. Member for Waterford, who expressly, in this paper which I hold in my hand, suggests that the leaders of the Irish Volunteers ought to be shot. Here I have it in black and white, and where is the Member for Waterford to support it or deny it? [HON. MEMBERS: “Read it!”] This is what he said: ‘Three or four men have been imprisoned for short terms for open pro-German declaration’ – Which is a lie, Mr. Speaker – ‘…for which in similar cases they would have been shot in Germany.’
The narrowness of this Motion, or this Resolution, now before the House was specially conceived and designed to prevent any useful or thorough examination of what has occurred in Ireland. This Debate, in effect, is a whitewashing Debate – a whitewashing of the four Members of this House I have named; but I can assure you, Mr. Speaker, and the House, and those four Members, that they are too late for their whitewashing.”
For more on John Redmond, and the real career and attitudes of the Waterford MP that you’ll rarely see mentioned by his defenders, see the articles below: