Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922, by Ronan Fanning
This perceptive study shows how Ireland became a pawn in the prime ministerial career games of Asquith and Lloyd George
Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922
Faber and Faber
In his splendid new book on Britain’s Irish policy in these formative years, Ronan Fanning stresses that his topic is not Anglo-Irish relations in the round but Britain’s policy towards Ireland. Yet if this is essentially a study in British history, it is also required reading for students of Irish history because of the way it illuminates our perspectives on the mode of British decision-making through which the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland emerged.
That mode Fanning delineates with surpassing skill, comparable with the most subtle exegeses of even such masters of the political historian’s craft as Nicholas Mansergh and Maurice Cowling, indeed surpassing both in literary style.
And style is crucial to the likely impact of a study where the devil is in the detail. But with the subtlety of exposition matched by the skill of presentation, a text that could in places have threatened the reader with submersion in torrents of daunting detail becomes a compelling read. That Fanning sustains his momentum through such dense material owes much to the seductiveness of a style sustained by pithy comments, deft formulations and saturnine reflections.
The core of the argument is at once simple and persuasive. Fanning’s command of his material enables him to demonstrate how Herbert Asquith, the Liberal prime minister until December 1916, when he was succeeded by David Lloyd George, outmanoeuvred John Redmond, the Home Rule leader, who comes out very poorly of this study in purely political terms: honourable but deluded, “ludicrously naive” on Ulster unionism and regularly misjudging the balance of probabilities on Home Rule.
If Redmond could not cope with Asquith, he was yet further out of his depth with Lloyd George, until his own death, in early 1918. When the Home Rule party was succeeded by Sinn Féin at the 1918 general election, Lloyd George found further opportunity to deploy the full range of his marvellous persuasive powers and matchless political cunning, in outmanoeuvring the Sinn Féin delegation during the Treaty negotiations in London in 1921.
In his probing reconstruction of the attitudes of these two prime ministers towards Irish nationalist demands, Fanning establishes indisputably that the essential issue for either of them was never Ireland but was, rather, their own party advantage and, above all, their personal career advantage. Both had to spend more time calculating the consequences of their policies for internal British politics, and their own positions, than for Anglo-Irish relations. Ireland was for them merely a pawn in a more important game: their careers. All this Fanning delineates with superb command of his material, not least in decoding the significance of what is not said as well as what is said in the innumerable documents he fillets, making it a joy to savour the brushwork of a master of his craft at the top of his form.
Lloyd George was so protean a political personality that it is easy to forget how little room for manoeuvre he often had in keeping several balls in the air, regularly adjusting direction in coping with the vulnerability of his position as prime minister in a coalition cabinet dominated by Tories and unionists. These coalition partners greatly limited his scope for manoeuvre on Ireland – and would indeed eventually ditch him only 10 months after he pulled off the triumph of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, having suckered the Sinn Féin delegates with his proposal of the Boundary Commission, on whose interpretation James Craig, the Ulster Unionist leader, with the willing support of many British politicians, officials and military leaders, completely outwitted Irish nationalist representatives.
The Boundary Commission was the ace in the entire Treaty negotiations. Fanning brings out indisputably the centrality of “Ulster” in the calculations of Asquith and Lloyd George and how, for them, under Tory pressure, the Irish Question had become essentially the Ulster Question. It may be hard for Irish nationalists to realise that, in British minds, by this stage “Ireland” was what was left over after the Ulster Question was resolved to unionist satisfaction in 1921, which meant essentially the satisfaction of Andrew Bonar Law, Edward Carson and James Craig, as well as a phalanx of British army officers.
It is no accident that the British offered a truce to Sinn Féin only after the boundary was in effective operation and the Northern Ireland parliament had come into existence in June 1921. For those reared on the assumption that Northern Ireland is what was left over after the Irish Free State was established, the precise opposite was the case. The Free State was what was left over after Northern Ireland was established.
A host of arresting apercus emerges from Fanning’s distillation of the evidence. The importance of officials broadly sympathetic to Irish nationalism, such as Tom Jones and Alfred Cope, is reaffirmed, but it is important to take cognisance of the extent of anti-Irish nationalist, and anti-Catholic, feeling among several unionist officials, such as John Taylor at Dublin Castle, to say nothing of several army officers, imbued with deep disdain for the lesser breed and the lesser creed. Fanning brings out clearly, too, how Lloyd George’s sensitivity to the Irish-American influence on American politics influenced his own insistence on keeping the United States onside in his search for the formulae that might resolve the Irish Question.
Persuasive as Fanning’s overall interpretation may be, there is one reservation, however problematical, and requiring further elucidation beyond the scope of this review, that can be expressed about his handling of the Irish side’s performance in the Treaty negotiations. Masterly though his assessment is of British tactics, especially Lloyd George’s, during the months of manoeuvring through the second half of 1921 that would culminate in the Treaty of December 6th, a question mark remains over his more cursory treatment of the Sinn Féin approach.
The sensitivity with which he teases out the political calculations of the British negotiators is not fully replicated in an analysis of the possible parallel calculations of the Sinn Féin representatives, who are generally taken to more or less believe what they say. He might well argue that this is indeed because they were so shallow, for he is distinctly unimpressed by the tactics of the Irish delegates, criticising in particular the failure to table proposals of their own, thus allowing the British to define the parameters of the negotiations.
Fanning faults Éamon de Valera, who stayed at home in the belief that final decisions would be referred back to him, for not issuing clearer directions to the plenipotentiaries. It is doubtless true that the de Valera of 1921 had not yet matured into as subtle an operator as he would later become. But how much independence did he have in the circumstances? How far was de Valera’s reluctance to have the cabinet define a final Irish negotiating position in advance a deliberate ploy, simply because any attempt to determine their final position at the outset might threaten to flounder on internal differences? May not postponing a final position have been an attempt to avoid, before the negotiations, the fatal split that appeared after them? In those circumstances, might not definition have meant division, weakening any Sinn Féin hand in advance?
Given de Valera’s belief that the plenipotentiaries would come back to him, and given his own realisation that compromise was inevitable (as Document No 2 after the signing of the Treaty would demonstrate), might there not have been a case for waiting to see what was the best compromise that could be got? De Valera’s position was not the diehard Republican one, and Document No 2 does not demand a republic. What de Valera strove for was a better compromise than the Treaty.
If a firm Sinn Féin final negotiating position went beyond what the British would tolerate, was it then to be resumed war? Of course, several alternative scenarios can be envisaged, but the bottom line was that the British could call up more guns than the IRA ever could. If they were prepared to use them to the full, there could be only one outcome. And who could have anticipated Arthur Griffith’s behaviour – “as vain as it was naive”, in Fanning’s scathing verdict – in agreeing to sign the Treaty even if no other member of the Sinn Féin delegation would do so? This was “a monumental mistake that . . . transformed the chemistry of the negotiations” and one that neither de Valera nor anybody else could have anticipated. May it not be argued that dangers, from one perspective or another, lurked within all the Irish options for the conduct of the negotiations, and not just the one the Sinn Féin cabinet selected, simply because of the brutal facts of military power?
The options open to the militarily weaker side are objectively much fewer than those available to the stronger power. May it then be the wiser course for the weaker not to define the acceptable limits?
We can never know whether Lloyd George’s celebrated ultimatum, threatening immediate war if the delegation did not sign, would have been implemented. One can conjure up sundry scenarios of the likely repercussions had the Irish delegation not allowed itself to be hypnotised by the Welsh wizard. Did Lloyd George, who had shown such concern about American opinion over the previous two years, truly believe there was no alternative but immediate and terrible war? Or would the legendary conjuror have pulled another rabbit from his capacious sleeve? Or would the Tory phalanx have brought him down on this issue rather than in the following year on one far less central to their core convictions? Whatever the choice, the course of Irish history since then might have then been very different, for better or for worse – probably, in unimaginable ways, for better and for worse.
Be all that as it may, it is not the author’s main concern, and it would be churlish to grumble that a study so professional in conceptualisation and execution, so rich in content and insight, so probing and perceptive in use of evidence does not exceed its own remit. Fanning has triumphantly achieved the goal he set himself in this absorbing work that vindicates the importance of the study of high politics and deserves to become a standard model of the genre.
Joe Lee is professor of Irish studies and director of Glucksman Ireland House at New York University. His books include Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society and, as co-editor, Making the Irish American.