How do we disentangle Redmond’s legacy and achievements?

The shadow of the Split lay over Redmond’s leadership like a pall


Not the least of the many ironies surrounding John Redmond’s career is that – despite his own great emphasis on national unity – for a century now he and his legacy have divided the Irish people.

For his supporters, he was a model of constitutional leadership, and offered a viable alternative to the military roots to Irish freedom and independence. He helped to achieve substantial measures of land reform, and to deliver the long unattainable goal of a state-funded university acceptable to Irish Catholics. He overcame the relative indifference of Liberal leaders to Home Rule, and helped to break the main constitutional obstacles to the Irish cause. By September 1914 he was at the apogee of his success, having achieved what none of his predecessors had done – not even Parnell – in securing the final passage of Home Rule. Moreover, all this had been attained essentially by reasoned argument rather than bullet, bomb or bayonet or even militant threat.

For separatists the lasting problem was of course that Irish freedom had not been secured in 1914, but rather indefinitely postponed. These same separatists, who had cautiously welcomed the introduction of the third Home Rule Bill into the British parliament in April 1912, were unsettled by the militarisation of Ulster unionism – and by the ways in which Redmond apparently overturned historic nationalist scepticism towards Britain’s army and Britain’s wars in encouraging Irish engagement in the allied cause. In the end the nub of their critique was that Redmond effectively sacrificed perhaps 35,000 (or more) Irish lives in the first World War for little return – and certainly for scarcely more than the illusory British promise of an (anyway) inadequate devolution settlement.

How, if at all, do we disentangle Redmond’s legacy and achievements from these very different readings? Part of Redmond’s problem was that he embodied only too well many of the compromises and contradictions of Irish patriotism and nationalism under the union. He opposed Britain’s imperial wars, but came to see empire as a means of furthering Irish Home Rule. He lauded the legacy of 1798 while ultimately endorsing the traditions of Irish engagement with the crown forces. Like Parnell, he was sympathetic to individual Fenians and to the movement as a whole, while doggedly pursuing his own parliamentary strategies. Like Parnell, too, he attacked British ministerial oppression, while maintaining channels of communication (and often friendly personal relations) with the ministerial oppressors. Elected as (in essence) a compromise Irish leader in 1900, he struggled to reconstruct the unity of the Irish Party after a decade of coruscating divisions, and struggled as well to keep his semi-detached senior partner, John Dillon, on message. In short, he wrestled with a range of fundamental issues and legacies – relating to the central cultures of Irish nationalism and of the union state in Ireland – which were rarely of his own making.

Loyal to the cause

Perhaps the most complex of these lay with the aftershock of the Parnell Split and indeed of Parnell’s early death, aged 45, in October 1891. Redmond was selflessly loyal to the cause of his great leader, but there are senses in which this loyalty, deep though it was, was to the letter rather than the spirit of Parnellism. The shadow of the Split lay over Redmond’s leadership like a pall; and indeed much of his later political career can be understood in terms of the desperate desire to sustain unity. Yet Parnell himself was more concerned with authority than with unity. The leadership of Redmond’s Irish Party in 1912 would certainly have been recognisable, for the most part, to Parnell himself. The Party’s essential goals and strategies – land reform, the Liberal alliance, appeals to the diaspora, Home Rule – again would have been familiar to the great man. Yet, paradoxically, these continuities and stasis were Parnellite without being Parnellism: the essence of the latter lay in strategic inventiveness, mobility, and an unflagging political self-possession. Above all, Parnell and Parnellism were about convincing the British political elite that their effective consent and collaboration were required for the peaceful governance of Ireland. And this Redmond never really succeeded in achieving.

Redmond is often tacitly compared, not only with Parnell, but with the heroes of 1916 who cut through the compromises demanded by the British state in Ireland by seeking its physical destruction. And yet there was a rival Irish leader, who had to navigate some similar compromises and complexities, but who often chose very different approaches from Redmond: this was Edward Carson, who from 1910 headed the Irish unionists. Comparing the commanders of the Home Rule and unionist movements may be to cut across distinct historical silos, raw political sensitivities and indeed often partitionist historical study – but equally in some ways it is an obvious undertaking, given that the two men had in fact so much in common. They were of broadly the same Irish generation, they were each educated at Trinity, and they for long lived within close proximity of each other in central Dublin. They first got to know each other as lawyers on circuit; and they each had lengthy tenures in parliament where their friendship consolidated. They were each in some sense marginal and compromise leaders of their respective parties – Redmond as a minority Parnellite, and Carson as a Dubliner within a largely northern unionism. As the two great Irish protagonists of the third Home Rule crisis, contemporaries routinely saw them together and judged them accordingly. Only with partition, and with the solidifying of their respective reputations within the two Irish polities, Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State, were the stories of the two men lastingly separated from each other.

Political resources

Each man had different political resources at his disposal. Redmond held the balance of power in the House of Commons after 1910, but constitutional nationalism remained divided with (for example) a significant regional challenge from the All for Ireland League: Redmond’s Liberal allies were broadly united and not always interested primarily in Home Rule. Carson, on the other hand, led an Irish unionist movement which by 1910 was relatively solid; and he co-operated with a British Conservative party which, divided by tariff reform and much else, looked to the union and to Ulster unionism as mechanisms for unity. In addition the extra-parliamentary strategies which Carson developed – the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, the planned provisional government – all liberated him further from dependence upon British politics. The supreme irony of the third Home Rule crisis was, therefore, that the Irish nationalist leader was essentially dependent upon a British government, while the Irish unionist leader was essentially dependent upon an Irish-based popular mobilisation. Carson committed illegalities and invoked paramilitarism; but in ways his fundamental strategy of compelling a British government to take notice through the threat of making Ireland ungovernable was closer to some central traditions within Irish nationalism than that of Redmond.

There were marked differences in style between the two men. Redmond was very occasionally capable of explosive rage, but in general he kept a powerful brake upon his emotions: he was reserved and buttoned-up, focusing on family rather than friendship networks. Carson, one of the most successful barristers of the age, was histrionic and emotional, drew relatively little comfort from his often dysfunctional family and instead looked to his many friendships spread across the party divide. He could be a devastatingly caustic and forceful political operator. Part of Redmond’s difficulty was that a mixture of personal temperament and the legacy of centrist political initiatives endowed him with a vocabulary and tone which could not only be read as wheedling or pleading, but which also sometimes allowed politeness or courtesy to disintegrate into the appearance of servility. Surveying Redmond’s correspondence with British government ministers is instructive in this (and other) respects, and stands in sharp contradistinction to the robust ways in which Carson (or indeed Parnell) dealt with the British political elite. A characteristic motif of the correspondence was anxious petitioning: a characteristic tone, on the other hand, was offended gentility.

Indeed, Redmond himself was occasionally and painfully aware that a combination of the increasing dependence of the Irish on the Liberals and his own fatal courtesy could produce lamentable consequences. In July 1908, for example, he sought to lobby the new prime minister, Asquith, and the Chancellor, Lloyd George, but was brusquely given the run-around: “I feel really humiliated in having run after them in the way I have done”, he recorded, “and I will ask them for no further interviews”. But there were other, and worse, “humiliations”. In March 1914 he was forced by the prime minister into a rapid series of concessions on partition, despite preceding reassurances; but as Asquith had earlier coolly remarked, “the Nationalists without the support of the Liberal Party were powerless”. In the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, with the main party organ, the Freeman’s Journal, in ruins, Redmond was compelled to make a secret approach to the Liberal leadership asking for financial support to resurrect the title. His first port of call was the former Liberal chief whip, Murray of Elibank, to whom he set out his petition at length; but, as Murray recorded, “it was really a very pathetic interview”.

Carson and Redmond’s modes of dealing with metropolitan power can be illustrated in different ways, but one striking example occurred at the beginning of the first World War, when each man sought to negotiate with the newly appointed secretary of state for war, Lord Kitchener. Carson’s method of engaging this strange and bullying potentate was direct: according to Carson’s first biographer, Ian Colvin, the two men met on or around August 6th, 1914, when Kitchener kicked off with – “Surely you’re not going to hold out for Tyrone and Fermanagh”. “You are a damned clever fellow,” said Carson, “telling me what I ought to be doing”. “If I had been on a platform with you and Redmond,” Kitchener retorted, “I should have knocked your heads together!” “I’d like to see you try,” said Carson in his slow drawling way. Like Carson, Redmond had a difficult interview with Kitchener in early August 1914; but where Carson sneered and growled and affected contempt, Redmond appears to have reacted with offended gentility, immediately writing a firm but polite letter of complaint to Asquith, and protesting that he had been “rather disquieted by the conversation” with Kitchener: “rather disquieted” in fact presents a telling contrast with Carson’s “I’d like to see you try”.


In the end, however, the challenges facing Redmond were formidable. Constitutional nationalism remained effectively divided despite the formal unification of 1900; the wider legacies bequeathed by Parnell were complex and ambiguous. Unionism in the north deployed its formidable material strength in a campaign of militant threat, popular mobilisation and brinkmanship. The outbreak of war in 1914 ultimately recalibrated the politics of the United Kingdom state, with Irish affairs rapidly losing traction within British government. That Redmond achieved so much is a testimony to his resilience and skill; that he ultimately failed in his central ambition says as much about the difficulties that he faced, and the flawed nature of the union state and its politics, as it does about his own abilities and principles.

Ireland for long has been a land of secret histories, where the reality of political experience has sometimes been buried, and often kept far apart from the ideal. The ideal has been a treasured vision of a pristine struggle against British overlordship: the reality has often involved day-to-day compromises with power, ambiguous family heritages and quotidian and understandable (if not very glamorous) struggles for survival and betterment. It was Redmond’s tragedy that he all too clearly embodied these compromises, ambiguities and struggles; but at the same time these complexities also reflected the reality of much Irish historical experience. And herein lie both Redmond’s authenticity and his importance for us all today.

Alvin Jackson is Sir Richard Lodge Professor of History at the University of Edinburgh. His latest book, ‘Judging Redmond and Carson’, has just been published by the Royal Irish Academy. There is an official commemorative symposium on March 6th, the centenary of John Redmond’s death, in the National Gallery, followed by a Royal Irish Academy discourse

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