User Menu

How the British ‘lost’ the Easter Rising

In ‘The Enemy Files’, Michael Portillo shows how events in 1916 were dealt with by London

Gen John Maxwell and his entourage inspect British troops after the Easter Rising
British Liberal statesman Herbert Henry Asquith: effectively washed his hands of the whole affair. Photograph: Edward Gooch/Getty Images
Former British MP and narrator of ‘The Enemy Files’ Michael Portillo: ‘Probably all the options would have been a mistake.’ Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

The Easter Rising has generated a huge amount of analysis from an Irish perspective, but very little from the British side.

It may have been the defining event which led to the modern Irish State, but it was also a significant event in British history.

Viewed from a British perspective, the Rising was a calamity.

Because of the actions of a small and initially unrepresentative minority of rebels, Britain lost the support and confidence of nationalist Ireland which had been for the most part loyal to the empire in the long struggle for Home Rule.

The Rising precipitated the independence of one corner of the UK, led on to the partition of Ireland and the Troubles and emboldened British colonies elsewhere to seek their freedom, in turn hastening the end of the British empire.

The story of the Rising from a British perspective is being told in a documentary airing on Monday on both RTÉ One and BBC NI entitled The Enemy Files.

It is presented by former British cabinet minister turned broadcaster Michael Portillo, who was tipped as a future prime minister in the final years of the Tory government which was drummed out of office (as he was) in 1997.

Portillo had experience of the dilemmas British politicians face when confronted by Irish republicans.

He was defence secretary during the Canary Wharf bombings of 1996 which ended the IRA ceasefire.

Though he graduated from Cambridge with a first in history, Portillo confesses to having been no expert on the Easter Rising.

In that, he says he is no different from the vast majority of British people because the horrific slaughter of the first World War swamps everything else in the British popular memory from that time period.

He was employed for the documentary to bring a British politician’s perspectives to the time and to extricate the context from a “century’s worth of debris that has accumulated on top of this issue”.

Missed opportunities

The “enemy files” are British cabinet papers, intelligence dispatches and memoirs from soldiers of senior and minor rank.

They tell a story of intelligence blunders, missed opportunities, bad politics and the fog of war leading to poor decision-making.

The Rising amounted to a calamitous failure of intelligence of the part of the British secret service.

The British had been able to intercept telegrams between the German embassy in the US and Berlin explicitly stating that a Rising was going to occur on Easter weekend 1916.

Yet on the date in question, chief secretary Augustine Birrell and commander-in- chief in Ireland Sir Lovick Friend were in London, military leave had not been cancelled and the major buildings in Dublin were left almost undefended. Why?

Portillo reckons that Birrell, who hitherto had been known as an enlightened chief secretary for Ireland, had become complacent.

“He has been in the job for eight years and I think he has a genuine affection for Ireland and a genuine understanding of Ireland.

“ This leads him to believe that the Irish are not going to rise up,” Portillo says.

“He is so firm in that belief that it overcomes all evidence to the contrary.

“He simply dismisses it because it doesn’t fit with his view which is derived from his intuition about the Irish people.”

The alternative, once the intelligence had been received, was to round up all potential leaders. However, this would have led to another dilemma.

Eoin MacNeill, leader of the Irish Volunteers who issued the famous countermanding orders, had warned that any attempt to clamp down on the volunteers or their leaders would be the signal for military action.

There were thus no easy options for the British once the rebels decided to rise up.

Same mistake

What would Portillo have done? “I would have made the same mistake or I would have made a different mistake. But probably all the options would have been a mistake,” he says.

Portillo deals at length with the actions of British prime minister Herbert Asquith who effectively washed his hands of the whole affair and handed it over to Gen John Maxwell.

He reckons that by 1916, Asquith was a tired man, worn down by the burdens of office and prosecuting a war that was going badly for Britain.

In such circumstances, he lacked the firmness of purpose and the grip needed to deal with the aftermath.

The battles with the unionist and nationalist traditions had left him with a degree of “Irish exhaustion”, Portillo believes.

“Asquith never settles on any policy at all. It is not that he orders the executions, but it is that he doesn’t stop them. He never gets his mind around the idea that there is any political price to be paid.”

In the context of a military response to the Rising and in the context of the time, the execution of 16 leaders could be justified, Portillo believes.

The rebels had killed 115 British soldiers and had dealt with Germany, Britain’s sworn enemy.

However, he says the situation demanded a political response which was sorely absent until Asquith visited Ireland in the immediate aftermath of the executions, by which time the damage had been done.

Martyrdom

Portillo puzzles over the reference in the Proclamation to “our gallant allies in Europe”, namely Germany.

He believes the reference was put there by Patrick Pearse to provoke the British into an over-reaction.

“How do you expect the British not to shoot people who refer to the gallant allies? It is not central to declaring independence for Ireland.

“The whole thing makes sense without having to mention Germany at all. If you pursue this theory that Patrick Pearse wanted martyrdom, then you know this is all part of it.”

Hence, he believes the British fell into the “propaganda trap” set for them by the leaders of the Rising.

Portillo likens the Rising to a “farce on a stage” where everything goes wrong, yet it turned out to be a momentous moment in history.

As a keen student of history, he finds this the most intriguing and surprising thing about it.

“It is difficult to predict what are the things that are going to change the fate of nations.”

The Enemy Files is on RTÉ One at 9.35pm on Monday