Redmond’s role in story of State should be recognised

A hundred years ago today, John Redmond led a delegation to a conference that hoped to find a resolution to the Home Rule crisis

Leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party John Redmond (1856 - 1918, left) with Irish nationalist politician John Dillon (1851 - 1927), circa 1910. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party John Redmond (1856 - 1918, left) with Irish nationalist politician John Dillon (1851 - 1927), circa 1910. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images


John Bruton’s recent reassertion that he was a “Redmondite” drew a speedy response in this newspaper’s letters page. Gerry Adams recently referred to Fine Gael as a party of “Redmondites” – it was not meant as a complimentary remark.

Redmond can still polarise opinion. But one fact is clear. He is the third giant in a constitutional triumvirate that includes O’Connell and Parnell, and that dominated Irish politics for a century. The title of the recently published second part of Dermot Meleady’s two volume biography of Redmond is The National Leader. Both friend and foe of the time would have recognised that to be the case.

Nonetheless the modern debate surrounding Redmond’s place in the Irish national story is unsurprising.

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.

At times, those like John Bruton who have argued for Redmond’s rehabilitation in the national story sought to do so at the expense of the Republican generation that followed. While sincerely held, this view has mitigated against a re-examination of Redmond’s record.

Perhaps it would be more helpful to look at the issue another way.

Ultimately, it is difficult to see how the independence whose centenary we will celebrate in 2021 could have been possible without the Home Rule movement.

Army mutiny Without the Home Rule Act, the 1916 Rising has no context. By 1916 Britain had made a concession and failed to deliver. The Conservatives had flouted the laws of British democracy. The army had mutinied. The Irish people, not just a vanguard of Republicans, had been brought to a place and collectively let down.

Speaking in Wexford in 1956 at an event to mark the centenary of Redmond’s birth, one of his colleagues, Sir John Esmonde, described Ireland as having been “cheated and betrayed” in 1914.

Having played by the rules of parliamentary politics for 30 years, the rules had been changed just as victory seemed imminent. Redmond and his acolytes did not recognise it at the time, but at that stage their goose was cooked. It would fall to a generation of militarists to match the Orange Card and exhaust Britain’s will to stay in Ireland.

But 1916, without the parliamentary achievement of 1914, could very well have had as little success as 1798, 1848 or 1867.

The Home Rule Act of 1914 was a monumental achievement. In it the United Kingdom conceded to the democratically expressed wishes of the Irish people to govern themselves.

Its implementation was delayed by Ulster resistance. Ultimately, the Redmondite project was undone by the delay. But why should Redmond be subject to particular criticism on this front? A century later we know now how complex an issue this is. Three republican military campaigns have failed to resolve this issue in line with traditional nationalist aspirations.

Indeed, some of the concerns that drove Redmond’s policy, (including his war policy), like the need for reconciliation between the peoples of this island, anticipate John Hume. Despite his remarks, John Redmond was among the first to grapple with the issues that even Gerry Adams struggles with now. The Belfast Agreement is a testament to the intractable issue that faced Redmond and which still faces us today. If a united Ireland is to be achieved by consent at any stage it will reflect as many Redmondite values as republican ones.

It is the case too that the historical emphasis has been more about what differentiated republicans and home rulers. This can be overstated. In some ways, the nationalist and republican traditions were not as distinct as is often depicted.

Redmond’s party, like all monolithic political forces, were a varied bunch. Redmond’s affinity to the British political system was not always shared by his party.

All through its existence from the new departure onwards, the Home Rule Party, including in Redmond’s time, had an ongoing relationship with the Fenian tradition. There were many republicans in the later period, like Pearse and Childers, who had been Home Rulers once, and there were Home Rulers too who had been Fenians. The Home Rulers sought to absorb the Fenian tradition.

Even on physical force the line is blurred. The Home Rulers, albeit reluctantly, sought to arm the Volunteers in response to the arming of the Ulster Volunteers.

No contradiction And while the Home Rulers have also been written out of the cultural revival story, it was too broadly based not to have participated in this movement also. Redmond saw no contradiction between having his children taught Irish, flying the Union Jack with the Green Harp at his home in Wicklow and, like Collins, was photographed at GAA games.

John Bruton aside, there are none of us Redmondites now, but from 1900 to 1917 the Irish Party was the dominant force in Irish politics. There were clearly plenty of Redmondites then. Redmond and his party surpassed the achievement of Parnell in getting Home Rule on the statute book. While Redmond might not have advocated the independent Irish State that was established, its establishment is difficult to imagine without him.

For that reason, Redmond’s role and that of his party in the story of our State should be recognised and honoured.

Ronan O’Brien is a Labour Party political adviser and a historian.

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