In a Word . . . Truce

Tomorrow marks the centenary of the truce that ended the Irish War of Independence

Photograph: Getty Images

Photograph: Getty Images

 

Tomorrow marks the centenary of one of the most significant days in Irish history, the truce that brought to an end the Irish War of Independence.

It was an extraordinary achievement for a ragbag of young men and women in the then IRA to have forced leaders of the world’s biggest empire to the negotiating table.

But, in truth, it wasn’t so much the IRA that brought about that, as recognition in London that the IRA had widespread support among the Irish people.

This had also been made clear when Sinn Féin, with its policy of setting up a separate Irish parliament (Dáil) in Dublin, swept the country in the 1918 general election. The will of the people was clear, then, and it persisted through the murder and mayhem of the War of Independence.

This remained so even as the IRA was reduced by July 1921 to 2,000 active fighters, 569 rifles, 477 revolvers and 20 bullets per rifle, as recounted last month by colleague Ronan McGreevy in the excellent supplement 1921: Truce and Treaty, which accompanied The Irish Times on May 25th.

Of the Irish success in forcing London to the negotiating table Jawaharlal Nehru, later India’s first prime minister, observed that “a mere handful of young men and women, with the sympathy of their people behind them, fought against fantastic odds; a great and organised empire was against them”.

There can be no doubting the moral and political justification for the War of Independence as an expression of the will of the Irish people. My problem is with what went before: the 1916 Rising. It had neither moral nor political authority.

For justification those responsible looked into their own hearts, as others would later, and blessed the gun as a means to political ends, setting in train a violence that bedevilled this island throughout the 20th century.

I remain to be convinced that we would not have been better off, in all senses, had we continued along the political route towards independence as set out in the Home Rule Act of 1912.

We would then have followed similar paths to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Newfoundland. We might also have escaped the grim poverty that beset Ireland for most of that 20th century too.

Truce, from Old English treow, for “pledge, promise, agreement”.

inaword@irishtimes.com

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